With a couple of slight additions, this is the piece I wrote for the latest edition of the Australian Broadcast Journalism textbook (OUP 2013) After the Woolwich murder, the Boston bombings and countless other examples, it already seems out of date. Pity then, that in some ways it still needs to be said.
Every journalist is a video journalist.
That’s not a policy pronouncement or a persuasive definition, an exhortation or piece of propaganda. These days, it’s just a statement of fact.
Every journalist is a video journalist because they work in an electronic medium which carries text, pictures, sound and vision completely interchangeably. In fact the net doesn’t deliver, text, pictures or sound. It delivers bits. The digital environment is an acid which dissolves everything into ones and zeros and delivers them in whatever form the user wants.
Even if a journalist files for print on paper they can choose to extend their story into digital – or not – but they can’t avoid the choice.
In 2011 a New York Times journalist was part of a print-only pool at an Obama fundraising dinner. When protesters supporting Bradley Manning (the jailed soldier who allegedly leaked material to Wikileaks) stood up and started singing, she got out her phone and videoed them. There have been countless examples since.
She understood she was a video journalist, even if the White House didn’t.There have been countless examples since.
The only questions are whether video is an appropriate way to tell a particular story and whether a journalist is equipped and trained to do it at that moment.
That’s where the smartphone comes in.
A journalist has to be able to tell a story using the written word, pictures and video. That means gathering and filing words, pictures and video. The smartphone can do all those things at a level which makes them publishable in the form in which they’re gathered. News websites use pictures and video from smartphones all the time.
The smartphone is the technological counterpart of the all-round mobile journalist. It is the reporter’s swiss army knife: a multifunctional tool they can slip in their pocket and use as needed at a moment’s notice. And it adds nothing to the kit they already carry.
A trained journalist needs to be able to use a smartphone more competently than most. They need to know how to frame a shot, how to avoid overexposure, how to maximise audio quality, how to shoot for a basic sequence, how to gather grabs and how to file the right amount of material in a timely way.
But the point is that the smartphone means they can, and should be expected to gather publishable material up to a certain level without needing to rely on the craft skills of a video specialist or photographer.
The smartphone occupies a distinct but important niche in the modern newsgathering ecosystem. Used competently, for the right purpose, it is a fantastically powerful tool.
Of course there are limits to what the smartphone can do. Without an external microphone the audio is often poor (the most common reason why video is unusable). There is very little control over focus and exposure and little zoom. Emailed video, while fantastically quick to file and publish, is low resolution.
Beyond a certain point, usually - but not only – where the imperative of quality overtakes the need for speed, greater technical sophistication and higher level skills are needed.
It’s already clear, however, that a journalist who understands how to use a smartphone well has made the conceptual leap into understanding that they are a video journalist as well as a text one and has the basis for acquiring those skills.
Smartphones are in their infancy. In future we will no doubt move beyond them to more powerful and capable devices involving things like augmented reality as well as other applications which are still just a gleam in a developer’s eye.
But whatever they become, every journalist should want to use whatever technology is available, to its maximum potential to make storytelling as compelling as it can be.
Here’s a great example of how big organisations which have to deal with media scrutiny can’t quite get their head around the way technology is changing journalists’ working practices. It also points to a real danger for media if we don’t get our story straight.
The San Francisco Chronicle tells how the White House threatened to ban a reporter in a ‘print pool’ for using her video camera. In sum, Carla Marinucci was a Chronicle journo who was part of what White House officials still apparently call a ‘pen and pad’ pool. They were peeved that she shot video of pro Bradley Manning protestors disrupting a fundraising meeting while Obama was speaking at a hotel.
This, as the Chronicle pointed out, from an administration that prides itself on understanding digital media and boasts it wants to be the most open in history. The day before this happened Obama was interviewed by Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. On video.
As the Chronicle also points out, the protestors were almost certain to have their own video. Anyone else there with a video phone or Flip camera could have shot it too and posted to YouTube. Why single out the journalist?
The answer is pretty clear. Digital media in all its forms takes away the ability of powerful organisations to control the agenda, their image or the news cycle. One of the remaining levers they have is controlling access. Perhaps Obama’s people do understand how the digital world works, but a more ancient reflex kicked in.
For journalists getting access is a key advantage they have over non-journalists, but in return have to obey rules – what is and isn’t on the record, what can and can’t be recorded in audio or on video.
The media in general – and the White House Press Corps in particular – have long been criticised for being too compliant with all this and for suffering a kind of journalistic Stockholm Syndrome. So good on Carla Marinucci for breaking the rules, if she did.
What she did is only going to become more common. Every journalist should be thinking about video and other media – not whole packages, but exactly the kind of thing she captured on her phone camera: Short illustrative grabs or key moments.
Here’s a good local example for me: our Chief Reporter Georgina Robinson was doing an election profile in a beachside suburb of Sydney, when she heard about a dramatic surf rescue of a young girl. Georgie had her iPhone on her and got some great stuff from the rescuers.
Video journalism isn’t just for video journalists any more than reporting and publishing is only for reporters or publishers any more.
But there are two dangers for practising journalists here. One is that if we don’t challenge the outdated rules we will be seen to be too much in the pocket of powerful institutions and will seen to be falling behind the pace set by others on the web.
The other danger is more insidious. Powerful organisations can use these kind of rules to divide journalists and retain control. There is a hint of that in the SF Chronicle story, which talks about resentment from other journalists that Marinucci hadn’t obeyed pool rules when they had, and had thereby scooped them (as if the audience would care about that).
Other bodies, particularly sporting ones, can threaten to remove accreditation from print journalists attending, say a tennis or cricket tournament, if their photo or video colleagues shoot things they shouldn’t – or if the print ones do.
There are also other issues about protection of commercial TV rights there, but the ability of big organisations to reinforce control of access remains the same as does the principle that it needs to be challenged wherever possible.
So journalists, media companies, even whole sectors of the media, need to confront these attempts at control in a coordinated way and not be divided between print, online, video, photos.The easy availability of technology, not just for shooting, but editing and filing has a logic which will drive us more and more into doing that – if we’re still serious about the long-trumpeted role of the media as a check on power.
Some of the most interesting recent developments in video journalism have come from people who shoot on DSLRs, like the Guardian’s Dan Chung and Sundance award-winner Danfung Dennis. Links to the work of both are on the right of this blog.
Chung, originally a stills photographer, explains his move into video and multimedia here
He also runs DSLR News Shooter, whose slogan is ‘Making the Real World Look as good as cinema.’ No compromise on production values, then, as can be seen in his work.
But it’s an approach which raises some interesting questions. Should the real world look as good as cinema? Is there any tradeoff if it does? Can all stories be done that way or does it limit your choice? Cinema is generally about fiction, journalism about fact, so does it risk undermining trust in the product?
I won’t claim to know the answer to any of those questions but it’s interesting that Dan Chung may already have bumped up against one of the limitations with this piece on the aftermath of the tsunami in Miyagi.
It was done just a few days after the quake and was criticised – rightly I think – for introducing cinematic values too soon into what should still have been treated as a breaking news story. The horror was still too close, and unfolding, for the glideshot and disembodied voices which tended to shift the focus to the maker’s form, rather than the content he was using.
Dan Chung responded to the criticism, as you can see here, and I wouldn’t fault him for trying to push the medium as far as he can. I think what this demonstrates is that you always have to keep asking why you’re doing something the way you are – what you’re trying to achieve – rather than only doing it because the technology makes it possible.
Perhaps a different set of cinematic production values could have been used in that context, to a different end.
Danfung Dennis has struck out in that direction with his Condition One Beta. He explicitly says he’s trying to bring home the reality of conflict because people have become numb to the images they see from places like Afghanistan and Iraq. He wants to create ‘powerful immersive experiences’ in order to have the same impact as television pictures did during the Vietnam war.
That’s the clear statement of intent behind My Freedom or Death he and photojournalist Patrick Chauvel produced using Condition One. Look at it and see what you think. Look at the comments underneath as well because he’s also clearly finding some scepticism about whether those sort of production values should be used to cover conflict.
Is that scepticism well-founded or is this just the inevitable resistance visionaries face when they’re trying to shake the world out of its complacency?
It’s hard to deny that they’ve identified a problem, that audiences have become desensitised to some pretty horrific images. But is that because of the stale nature of the form itself or just the quantity of media available these days? Even if it is about the form, is this the right solution? Is the solution to be found in production values at all, or is video journalism’s real contribution in the kind of access and narrative it makes possible away from the stilted formula of conventional TV?
At worst, could high-end production values even extend the numbness?
I remember when I first saw an episode of Jerry Bruckheimer’s CSI Miami I felt shocked at the way grisly stories with gruesome details were pushed through a sieve of glossy production values which I’d only ever seen in adverts. There was a terrible clash of aesthetic techniques which were normally used to seduce and persuade you to desire something with subject matter which only ought to revolt.
Now I watch it and practically laugh at the sheer silliness of it. I’m sure that will be seen as unfair and I don’t mean it as a direct comparison, but the point is that you can quickly get immunised through exposure. And that can apply to news as much as cinema.
The other problem with cinematic production values is that they can send a message to viewers that what they are seeing has been produced in a controlled environment, possibly directed and therefore in some way, fake. It becomes that bit less believable if it looks too well made or too easy to do. “That didn’t really happen in front of the camera that way, did it? That was set up?’
Audiences have long since realised that’s what happens with a lot of TV, especially ‘reality TV.’ It would be frustrating if that kind of jaundiced cycnicism bled over into a medium which is trying to get away from precisely the stale make-believe.
That, of course, is not the fault of the people like Danfung Dennis and Dan Chung. I’m sure they’d say it’s exactly what they’re trying to shake off. And I say good luck to them.
But video journalism, newcomer though it is, still has to work in an environment shaped by existing conventions, presumptions and prejudices. What they’re doing will help decide whether it really manages to develop as a form in its own right or subsides into a secondary role.
A video journalist causing trouble, keeping the camera on: just what it’s all about.
It isn’t pretty video, but what’s good about this is it isn’t just about the video. It’s demonstrates that VJs don’t have to be passive gatherers relying on negotiated access to their subject. They can also stand up for core journalistic values by demanding access to things which should be exposed and unashamedly pointing up the hypocrisy of those denying it. .
No Tea Party – hidden-camera activist gets camera shy
I assigned a video producer to go to the Royal Easter Show in Sydney today, to shoot video for a rolling blog on his iPhone.
Nothing technologically groundbreaking about that, but for a mainstream news site that has worked hard at improving production values over the last few years it’s not without cost. The video is heavily compressed and the audio is much lower quality, as you can see here: Blogging from the biggest show in town
When Sydney’s rail network ground to a halt earlier this week I also sent a producer out with an iPhone to get reaction from passengers.
Where speed’s the key it’s worth paying the price of lower technical quality. Breaking news is also what online news is made for, with its ability to update quickly. It’s where mainstream newssites can get – and need to get – closest to the blogosphere.
But it has to be done without sacrificing editorial values. In the case of video we’ve been slower to go down this route because we’re unwilling sacrifice the professional production values which differentiate us from the rest of the web.
What I’ve learnt is that what we’ve been doing this week works fine for quick reaction or liveblog where the video is going into a stream of written copy. Where you notice the lower quality more is if you package all the video up into one story. It’s then you expect to see higher production values. I think you’ll agree if you look here: Commuters late and frustrated
So the best way to use this kind of video is to get it on the page as it comes in and then move on.
Online video doesn’t usually have the same toys to play with as TV news, but maybe this could be our very own news chopper?
It can do this kind of thing:
My colleague Tom McKendrick sends me this. It’s obviously scripted by a journalist or someone with newsroom experience and it’s got a lot of truth to it.
What’s striking about it is the old-fashioned romantic ambitions of the wannabe journo who just wants to work for the Grey Lady. Does anyone have those ambitions any more? From what I see I think they do although they also know it won’t be enough just to work for the print side of a newspaper. They’ll have to do a lot more, like video and other multimedia.
But the way that romantic dream still has a hold on the imagination speaks volumes for the enduring values which the press has established over a very long time and it’s those we – rightly – fret about preserving rather than any particular delivery system, dead tree or not.
Anyway enjoy and wince:
This is how to do it.
John Garnaut, Fairfax Media’s Beijing correspondent, got an interview with democracy writer and ‘super blogger’ Yang Hengjun at the end of last week.
Yang had disappeared from view the previous Sunday and a lot of people believed he had been detained by the Chinese authorities.
When he re-emerged he spoke to John, who wrote it up for the Sydney Morning Herald. But John and his colleague Sanghee Liu also did a video interview which is on the SMH now.
You can criticise the production values, as John and Sanghee are the first to admit, but the key thing is that they realised that this was a good get because it really adds value to see and hear the man as well as just have his words reported in print.
If someone might have been detained you’d want to see what they looked and sounded like afterwards wouldn’t you?