Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Using online video to explain AV & First Past the Post

Posted in Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on April 28, 2011

There’s no such thing as boring information, just boring presentation.

Anon

In a week, voters in Britain will have a once-in-a-generation chance to decide whether the election system in the UK should change.

At the moment it’s run on a plurality system called ‘First Past the Post’, but after last year’s election there were calls to switch it to the ‘Alternative Vote’ system.

In the last couple of months, opposing campaign groups, politicians and journalists have been trying to sway public opinion, in the minds of some, by using increasingly desperate tactics, creating (in Charlie Brooker’s words) “a stupidity whirlpool that engulfs any loose molecules of logic”. For example, both sides claim voting the other way would bring in the extremist British National Party.

It’s created so much confusion, there are worries people might not bother to vote at all.

As a pet project over the Easter break, I’ve created this video explainer to cut through the crap and explain First Past the Post and Alternative Vote properly.

Youtube version

Source list (pdf)

It comes with an accompanying source list, with every fact that appears checked against a reliable source. I interviewed political scientists to clarify key points of explanation too. I’ve tried to avoid opinion as much as possible, although I think you sometimes have to sacrifice total objectivity for the sake of clarity.

It’s far from perfect: it’s twice as long as I was aiming for and the visuals aren’t strong enough for a start. Feedback from close colleagues suggests the second half might be bordering on comment and not explanation (what do you think?)

I’m not the only one who’s had a crack at explaining the nuances of these two systems.  The BBC’s heavyweight current affairs programme Newsnight tried using (rather weak) satire to do it; the Electoral Commission itself attempted a Common Craft style cartoon which might have mis-read its audience; cartoons were order of the day in other films too. And Dan Snow’s piece is actually a campaign so doesn’t count, but he uses a good real-life example to explain AV.

Explaining the news

This explainer is the pilot of a bigger project on explaining the news I’m starting this spring, inspired by the work of Jay Rosen’s Studio20 program in New York City.

I think online video has huge potential to simplify a complicated topic and engage people with the issue, in fact, I believe video can do this better than any other medium.

I’ll go into detail in a later post, but in the meantime I’ll be watching the reaction to this video to get an idea of whether it’s got legs. If you like it (or don’t like it!) please share it online (and let me know in the comments)!

Journalism posts: a summary IV

Posted in Fresh eyes series, Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 31, 2010

Charlie Brooker’s dissection of the TV news package (and what you can learn from it)

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 30, 2010

We’ve been big fans of Charlie Brooker round these parts for some time, with at least four articles about him on this very blog since 2006. Combining an ability to conduct a withering criticism of television with a brutal and acerbic wit, Brooker has risen to become one of the BBC’s most cherished (but underexposed) properties.

His current series Newswipe on BBC Four, in the UK, is a must watch for anyone in journalism.

He’s been given extra kudos all round this week after a particularly accurate breakdown of the tired, cliched and over formulated television news package, which hasn’t changed much since the 1990s. And with nearly 500,000 views on Youtube since domestic transmission on Tuesday, he’s clearly touched a nerve:

Charlie effortlessly highlights television news’ ugliest and laziest conventions:

  • a dull establishing shot
  • an over affected piece to camera in the street
  • visual eye candy in slow motion…
  • …which monochromes into a graphics overlay
  • pointless and unenlightening vox pops
  • the inevitable “case study” – human interest
  • cliched GV’s (general views)
  • and a wry signoff

This critique has the BBC’s domestic output firmly in its sights, but similar conventions exist across the UK networks and even more so in North America.

So why do they exist?

The overuse of the TV news package formula isn’t down to shear laziness alone: it has been developed over decades to suit the financial, time and style constraints which come with producing 30 minutes of live television every single day.

These packages are a lot quicker to produce for one; filling in the gaps in a proven templates enables the reporter & producer to clearly picture the final package before filming starts – and therefore only shoot the interviews, shots and pieces to camera they know they need. Similarly it can be turned around in the edit in less than an hour.

It’s cheaper too, relying on the simplest shot structures and filming in public places. It sums up complicated facts (often about consumer data, financial information or government policy)  with graphics, quickly and simply.

And of course, sticking to a style enables a consistency across a programme, or even network of programmes.

So all well and good, but it comes at the cost of visual and narrative creativity. We’re fed stories in the same pattern every day, and as Charlie Brooker says, we become so accustomed to what a TV news report looks and sounds like, we watch on autopilot…and who does that help?

So what’s the takeaway?

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re not working in a TV newsroom. You’re more likely to be a video journalist working for a newspaper or the web, right? In which case, the rule is a simple one:

video journalism is NOT TV news!

Journalists from big newspapers have expressed frustration to me before that their attempts to ‘go into video’ end up looking amateurish. What they mean is they don’t look as good as TV news. And the reason: they’re trying to copy this TV formula without really understanding it. And they’re imitating without any need too.

Video journalism is free of so many of the contraints which which created the TV news formula; they might have more time, fewer people, and no style conventions to adhere too…so make the most of that! It’s cheaper than TV news too – so you can afford to experiment and make mistakes.

With the technology to produce video narratives cheaper than ever, I hope more people will pick up a camera and learn how to tell visual stories in new ways. Leaving it in the hands of the conventional herd of the mainstream newsroom alone means we’ll only emerge from this industry upheaval with more of the same. And that would be sad.

Having said that….!

The traditional TV news package still has its place. For proof, look no further than (who I think) is one of the most superb Broadcast Journalists working right now: the BBC’s Matthew Price. Here’s a powerful story from his stint in the Middle East. It’s classic TV news reporting at its best:

Update: Video Journalism guru David Dunkley-Gyimah has cross posted his response to this one on his blog: “The alternative key, I think, to new video making is to look towards new visual languages, rather than hark to traditional ones” – read the rest here.

My TV manifesto

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, International Development, News and that by Adam Westbrook on November 11, 2008

I’ve been working in broadcast news for two years now, and I’ve been following it, I guess for five. And well, I think I’m just a bit tired with it all. With the formats, with the delivery, with the writing, with the style, with the editorial choices.

Surely there must be something different?

Here’s thing: I don’t think there is. We all know radio is in a state, and as for TV? Well I could write a long diatribe, but it’s been done already, far more succintly and wittily, and then put on television by Charlie Brooker:

Watch part one here:

Then part two here

And part three here:

Whether you like it or not, or whether you think it’s the way it’s always going to be or not, I am convinced there is room for something different.

Something aimed at a younger audience; with a journalistic transparency, a complete fluid harmony with digital and web technology, delivered differently, cheaply, eco-friendily, telling different stories, off the agenda, breaking the rules, offering something new.

To avoid sounding like the Alistair Darling when he gave his speech about how to fix the economy the other week (and didn’t actually announce anything), here is – for what its worth – my own TV news manifesto. Just some ideas; debate them, slate them!

a new news manifesto

This is my own idea for an online based alternative news platform. At its heart is a daily studio news programme, uploaded to the website and to Youtube. It is of no fixed length – only dictated by the content.

Content

Ignore the stories of the mainstream media. That means crime stories are out. Court stories with no lasting impact are out. Surveys, unless by major bodies are out, so is the sort of PR pollster rubbish that fills the airwaves. If people want that they have no end of sources. This will be different.

Solution journalism?

Rather than just reporting on a problem and ending with the cliche “whether this problem will be solved is yet to be seen” there’s a good argument for solution journalism. Jake Lynch and Anna McGoldrick suggest it as part of their own ideas on Peace Journalism (could it be adapted to non-conflict reporting?)  Reports which examine how a problem might be solved rather than just reminding us there’s a problem.

A younger audience; a digital existence

A programme for the ‘web 2.0 generation’. That’s the people who blog, use facebook and myspace and exist in a digital online world. It’ll be up front and direct, but not patronising like Newsbeat‘s “something bad has happened in a place called abroad” style. VJ pieces will be created for web use not to mimic TV styles.

Video Journalism

At its heart will be the ethos of video journalism. David Dunkley-Gyimah laid out his own manifesto on this here. As well as staffing young creative VJs for firefighting stories and assignments, this brand would tap from a huge source of international freelance sources as well as other existing solutions like Demotix and Vimeo. Stylistically it would take its cues from already successful projects like Current TV. Packages are edited fast and with attitude -they know the rules of conventional film, but aren’t afraid to break them.

Focus

It would have an international focus, remembering the unreported stories. It believes the phrase “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. It would focus on unreported issues and people with the story tellers getting right into the story. Creativity is the norm, and the packages do not try to emulate TV news in content or form.

But what about the main agenda?

This wouldn’t be ignored – but would be wrapped in each show in a “newsbelt” form – “the stories the other shows are talking about” It would need to feel connected to the national agenda but not neccessarily following it.

Transparent

A key element to this type of journalism would be transparency in reporting and editing. Packages would be VJ produced – from the root to the fruit – and VJ led. In other words the viewer follows the VJ as they investigate and tell the story. If it’s from a press release the audience deserves to know that. There would also be an openness in editing with misleading cutaways, noddies and GVs removed, and edits to interviews clearly signposted (for example through a flash wipe). Agency footage labelled as such so viewers know it’s not inhouse. Images of reporters can appear on screen as they cover the story.

Delivery

The platform is digital – through an accessible, well designed fluid website. Viewers can watch whole shows or individual reports. Each show would have no time requirements as broadcasters do. It would need to host an online community of viewers who watch, comment, submit and review. They are reflected in the content. The people at 4iP lay it out quite nicely right here.

Attitude

The journalism would have attitude, and would be not afraid to take risks. At its heart is good story telling and brilliant writing. Creative treatments would set the standard mainstream broadcasters will adopt months later.

Cheap and green

The video journalism model is cheap and green. One man bands on assignment, sourcing, shooting and cutting themselves. No need for live satellite link ups or expensive foreign trips housing 5 people in big hotels (what’s wrong with a hostel?) The central programme itself would be studio based but avoiding the “absurdist cathedrals of light” preferred by the mainstream. Solar powered lighting? Light cameras on light peds?

Presentation

The central programme is relaxed, young and doesn’t appear to be trying too hard. The team have the mind set of the Daily Buzz and create great moments even when they’re not trying too. Stylistically the presentation takes its cues from a more fluid version of C4 News in the UK, with almost constant (but not distracting) camera movements.

This news platform doesn’t need to report the mainstream stores – because there is a plethora of media to do that already. It avoids the distorting pressures of the other networks, like the need for live pictures from the scene, uninformed 2-ways and time pressures. It focusses on bringing something new, but allowing analysis too. It’s VJ packages are well produced – but do not try to emulate the style of TV news.

That’s pretty much all I got. As i mentioned I strongly feel there is a demand for a new way of doing things-we just don’t know what that is yet.

And just a quick disclaimer: I’m just a young broadcast journalist with only 2 years under my belt. I certainly don’t suggest this any good a solution, or that I should have anything to do with it. But for what it’s worth I thought it was worth jotting down.

You might agree, or you might disagree…stick your thoughts in the comments box!

Brooker’s back

Posted in Adam, News and that by Adam Westbrook on February 6, 2007

I wrote about how ball droppingly funny Charlie Brooker was. You laughed. Then I told you to watch his Christmas special. It was barn storming.

Charlie Brooker's ScreenwipeAnd again, I return in a triumphant beam of my own smugness to command you to watch his brand new series on Monday nights, BBC Four. Last night he tackled OFCOM, Celeb Big Brother and TV Psychics and I’ve since spent the past 18 hours reattaching my testicles to my body with chicken wire.

Fin.

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Screenwipe: update

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on December 21, 2006

A wee while ago I praised the acerbic wit of TV critic and comedian Charlie Brooker on his pant-soilingly hilarious BBC Four programme Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe.

For those of you who were so enamoured by Mr Brooker and went on to watch the whole of series one and two on Youtube (if you didn’t – do it!) let it be known that the Screenwipe Christmas Special‘s airing on BBC Four in the UK  tonight at 23:10 pm.

Watch it or else.

Here’s a trailer from the BBC Four website.

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Meet the man who should do every movie review EVER

Posted in Uncategorized by Adam Westbrook on December 8, 2006

Perhaps I’m becoming more sceptical as a journalist these days, but I’m really getting tired of all the advertising toss that barrages me every day on the tube, the TV and the radio.

Like that new Oral B toothbrush that helps you “brush like a dentist.” Ignoring the patronising text that appears on screen (to remind us that the computer generated tootbrush massaging the computer generated teeth is a reconstruction and that they haven’t just shoved a camera inside a cartoon gob) the mere hint that dentists know some magical trick about how to brush teeth that they haven’t been telling us is pure arse.

And don’t get me started on all the freakin’ shampoo adverts that “utilise new hydra-ceramide-completely-made-up-amide with special shine compounds” that really give your hair lift.

But what’s really been bugging me is the film posters. You know the format: glossy image, big title and then little quotes from supposed reviewers telling us – always – that the film is so great it’ll make your eyes haemorrage and bleed out through your nostrils.

Like Zach Braffs piss poor rom-com The Last Kiss. Heralded as “the funniest film of the year”. No it wasn’t.

And that awful Russell Crowe one about the wine. The posters declared “witty and funny…I could watch it over and over”. No way hose. Once was bad enough.So enough lies! We need someone who can tell it to us straight. And I’ve found him. He’s called Charlie Brooker…he’s a writer/reviewer/comic who’s rather good at telling it how it is.

Charlie BrookerYou might have seen him over the summer on BBC Four’s excellent Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe and he currently writes a column in the Guardian’s G2 supplement on Mondays called Screen Burn.

He described the McDonald Brothers (thankfully now booted out of the X-Factor) as “the kind of act a child killer might listen to in his car”and thinks we should shove TV psychics in”windowless cells and make them crap in buckets. They can spend the rest of their days sewing mailbags in the dark.”

He’s got a cracking way with words and the sharpest bullshit detector on the planet. So you know that when he tells you a film’s good — it actually is good. And if he tells you a films is so scary “it’ll make you shit your own spine” then you can feel confident taking an extra pair of pants to the cinema. And perhaps sitting on your own somewhere.

And best of all, if film posters adorning tube platforms went something like:

Twentieth Century Fox Presents

Eragon

“You are stronger than you realize. Wiser than you know.”

Easily the worst dollop of wank to get funding since Kevin Costner. A piss-poor imitation of Lord of the Rings” Charlie Brooker

we could all save ourselves £6.50.

Check out Charlie Brooker’s hilarious TV Go Home (offensive language)

And here’s a clip from Screen wipe where Brooker’s distaste for TV psychics becomes apparent:

 

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