Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

5 TV news conventions video journalists should scrap

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on March 17, 2011

Time is something TV News does not have.

It does not have much time to turn around a package (anything from 12 hours to just 30 minutes); and it does not have much time on air to explain a complex news event (usually just 90 seconds). As a result formulas and conventions were developed over the decades – which help the journalists tell a complicated story very quickly.

But rarely is online video journalism shackled by such quick deadlines. If a newspaper or magazine decided to invest in a video report, it’s usually for a diary event which they can plan in advance: the video journalist might have days to prepare for a story. Online, video stories can run as long as the streaming platform will allow.

So more time on screen, more time behind the scenes…so why do online video journalists still follow their television brethren so closely? Here are five conventions which TV news designed and VJs could leave behind.

Five TV news conventions video journalists should scrap


Classic framing for an interview

.01 the 3-quarter-shot interview

The 3-quarter-shot as it’s known, is the classic framing for interviews in news and documentaries. Traditionally, we see the interviewee off-centre, looking either to the left or the right, presumably having a conversation with the reporter.

It exists in TV news, because it’s quick to set up and execute. The camera-person can frame the shot quickly without needing the subject to participate.

Instead: try having your interviewee look directly into the lens. This allows them to make direct eye-contact with the viewer, and gives the audience use of the full range of their facial expressions. Michael Rosenblum explains it well here, and I’ve been experimenting with it in these films for myNewsBiz. I found my subjects very comfortable and natural looking into the lens, as they would be looking at me.

Just because TV news does something, doesn’t mean online video journalism must follow suit!

.02 cutaways and noddies

Another TV new convention to creep into online video journalism is the ‘cutaway’. It’s that shot that gets inserted to cover-up an edit in the interview you’ve recorded. It’s done so often, we’ve become very accustomed to them – but, they can still be done badly…really badly. This clip is called ‘Police typing fail’ but it should be called reporter and camera-operater, and editor and producer fail:

It exists in TV news because it’s a very quick way to splice an interview together without distracting the audience with your edits. If you were to leave the cutaway out, the audience would notice a sudden jump in the interview, and get distracted. But what TV news is really doing is misleading its viewers, suggesting the interviewee spoke in one smooth uninterrupted flow.

Instead: don’t con your viewers. Be honest with them – they’re smart enough to know interviews get edited. Replace your cutaway with a ‘flash-wipe’ or ‘flash-through-colour-dissolve’. Make it just 10 or so frames long and be sure to put in an audio cross-fade too.

Just because TV news wants to trick its viewers doesn’t mean online video journalists should too!

.03 reliance on voice-overs

In most of the Western world, you never see a TV news report which doesn’t consist largely of voice-over. If you’re not familiar, that’s the reporter’s narration over (often quickly assembled) pictures. 95% of the time it’ll start a new report, and it’ll end at least half of them, unless the reporter decides to stick themselves on camera.

Voice over exists in TV news because it is an extremely quick way to cover over gaps in narrative and explain complicated things in a short space of time, both on screen and behind the scenes. Why go to all that effort to show a story happening, when you can just pull out a biro and tell it? At its worst and most hammy, it quickly becomes a source of parody:

Instead: use voice over sparingly. It should be a last-resort, rather than something you always factor into your storytelling. If you can’t show your story happening or have the people involved tell it themselves, is it a story worth covering in video?

Just because TV news covers stories regardless of whether they’re good visually, doesn’t mean video journalists should too!

.04 skin-deep storytelling

For the same reason, a TV news report is really only trying to summarise a story as quickly as possible. It wants you to know the key development that day – just enough so you can keep up a conversation at the bar and be quickly forgotten. And let’s be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But there is a large audience for more deep storytelling, more engaging explanations and analysis of our spinning rock – and that audience is online…and they’re currently dissatisfied.

So instead: don’t blow your online video skills producing shallow stories which will just bounce off the water. Use it to do what video journalism is best at: getting access to people and places the big cameras can’t go. Your small, intimate set-up will get you closer to eye-witnesses, into the homes of insurgents and weeks on the frontline with soldiers.

Just because TV news needs to quickly wrap a news story before 6pm doesn’t mean video journalists are in such a hurry!

.05 zero-transparency

Finally, if there’s something TV news is really bad at, it’s transparency.

Agency footage is never labelled, so viewers are left believing the BBC (or Sky News or CNN) cameras were on hand to catch an event when they were not. (Interestingly, US networks are far better at crediting footage to APTN/Reuters etc). It might seem a small thing, but in the Middle-East, whether footage of a suicide bombing is shot by a Palestinian or an Israeli freelancer can make a lot of difference. It also does not give credit to the crews who put their lives on the line.

We never hear where a story has come from, so people aren’t aware how much of news on television is taken from agencies, lifted from newspapers or worse still, from a press release.

So instead: set a new standard for transparency in online video journalism. Be straight up with viewers, tell them where every frame of video comes from. We can do it with graphics on screen, or in a ‘production details’ section below the embedded video. If we’ve edited an interview, tell our viewers that we have.

One more thing

Marco left a comment on this post earlier this week, raising a valid point:

…since the television formulas have worked for so long (and so successfully), shouldn’t we use them when we are producing video for the web?… I do know that television and online video are different by nature. But is the storytelling process so different as you try to show on your post?

He’s got a point. TV news works (for the most part) doesn’t it? Well, that’s something up for debate. Online video is a new medium, and should be approached as something new. There are lessons from past practitioners we can learn…but my advice is skip television and learn from the early cinematographers. Fritz Lang and Orson Wells really understood visual storytelling – they invented it.

They had the time to devise ways of explaining something visually, passing information, often without any dialogue.

Those devices are still relevant today – and should be used by video journalists when they can. TV News just doesn’t have the time.


29 Responses

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  1. Chorche said, on March 17, 2011 at 10:41 am

    I am translating this post for opening a small debate. I work as a tv journalist, and i think this points you do are the same for us. Maybe as the start of a new way to “do the news”. Obvlously it’s not always possible, but i think them as a start point not just for online video but for tv news covering too.

  2. […] the item is edited because these days they do it themselves for social media and home videos. click here to read the […]

  3. Daniel Bentley said, on March 17, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    On pt 1. I think it feels more comfortable to be interviewed when looking at a person instead of a lens. People looking at a lens mostly look uncomfortable and it’s somewhat disconcerting for the viewer.

    Broadly agree with your other points though. I’m reminded of that excellent Charlie Brooker Newswipe segment where he breaks down the news broadcast.

  4. Dave Harte said, on March 17, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    From a hyperlocal point of view I disagree with some of the above. I agree we should challenge convention (voiceover in particular) but I don’t necessarily want my videos to become a platform for sub-French New Wave experiments so therefore the cutaway stays. I think by now the audience totally understands their function in ‘diding’ edits.

    I have a preference for those I interview not talking to camera. To do so might convey an authority on the interviewee that I’d rather they didn’t have. To use the three-quarters convention above actually singals to the viewer that they were talking to someone; that there is a process of editorialising going on here; that the video is constructed.

    And therein is the problem. Your suggestions are in themselves conventions that might serve to create a different feel but in their strive for an authentic rhetorical style only serve to further deceive viewers.

    Your final point, about a shift to visual storytelling is worth expanding upon. I’d go back to Richard Leacock and the Direct Cinema movement as touchpoint though rather than Wells or Lang

  5. Jessica said, on March 17, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Great tips, and I especially appreciate the point of this post: that online video is a different form of storytelling than TV. It might use the same medium – moving images – but the way people consume videos online is different from TV.

    So I actually disagree with Marco that we should keep some techniques because they “work.” How do you determine that? I think there’s a difference between proper technical execution (lighting, no jump cuts, proper audio etc) and established conventions.

    Online, we should rid ourselves of those conventions so we can create captivating stories for the web.

  6. Darley Media Group said, on March 17, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    TV news has evolved from the early cinematographers. The cutaway which you want to do away with, (your point 2) is the art of film (your point 5). The filmmaker has already subjected her point of view of events by the clip she has selected, cut away or no cut away.

    If we want transparency we need skilled storytellers that know and understand the medium. Here’s Jeremy Bowen’s report – the first British journalist to file a story after chaos erupted in Libya – it was a TV news report. It’s now an online video.

  7. Darley Media Group said, on March 17, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    Continued: link to Jeremy’s film:

  8. […] from: 5 TV news conventions video journalists should scrap « Adam … This entry was posted in all, Lain-lain and tagged all, and-documentaries-, classic, […]

  9. NickE said, on March 18, 2011 at 3:58 am

    I disagree with a fair chunk of the above. I find interviewees who aren’t used to cameras are much less open when looking down the lens – and it’s the same when doing stills. I do like to a get a few down the lens shots, but I don’t think it’s conducive to getting a good interview.

    Besides, the interviewee IS talking to the journalist. Not to the audience. If they were talking to the audience, the journalist wouldn’t be needed at all. Only a camera operator. And then the whole excercise would be PR (unless they’re actually answering questions directly from the audience, which is another matter/approach entirely!).

    To make it appear as if the journalist isn’t there is on par with what you refer to as “conning” your viewers elsewhere – with cutaways, and so on.

    I also disagree with how you characterise voiceovers. More often than not a voicever is need to give context to the story when your interviews or footage can’t. There are simply things and events that you can’t shoot, no matter how hard you try, and this is why a voice over is frequently needed.

    Don’t agree with what you say about noddies or cutaways either – while noddies are lazy, having a cutaway or overlay over the interviewee can often add a visual context to what they’re talking about. Plus it looks nicer, quite simply.

    I do agree that online can move away from the formulae of TV news. Things I’ll do with online video that’re different – much longer grabs, different structures (such as starting with a grab/natural sound, or running the interview as a Q and A with no overlay or sequences – just the interviewee alternating with questions on screen).

    Apart from that, I don’t think your article is ambitious enough – what about non-linear interviews? These have been do-able with current tech for years, and are ubiquitious in the gaming world (think mass effect/dragon age – you click on the question you want to ask, and the game essentially plays a clip of the response)

    What about videos without ANY dialogue – a la Dan Chung’s excellent work for The Guardian?

    Anyway, enough ranting from me. 🙂

  10. Adam Westbrook said, on March 18, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Great comments guys, thanks for sharing!

    As with a lot of things, there’s a lot of ‘horses for courses’ here – some people like cutaways, others don’t, and we could go on.

    But I stand by the central point of the post: that online video journalism should stop mimicking television. Otherwise we risk squandering a unique and once-only chance: to create a new, distinct medium of itself.

    @DavidHarte – yes I hope to expand on the cinematography argument in a future post

    @NickE – Dan Chung’s a great example of video journalism done differently, chiefly because he’s a photog first and foremost. He’s done some interesting stuff with a ‘cinematic aesthetic’ as it’s called..but there’s more we can do beyond making video look like film.

  11. jimdela said, on March 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Even though the medium (the web) isn’t constrained by time, viewers’ attention spans are. Telling a story quickly … getting to the point … is still a good idea. So voiceover and other time-compression techniques still have their place, I think.

    What I try to do is use video to augment my reporting, which is usually re-purposed for print and the web — much like a sidebar in the print world. Focusing in on one aspect of the story that would lend itself to video, for example, allows you to shorten your written piece (which is good) and lets you create a shorter video of something that “tells” better in video than it would in print.

  12. FocusedBoredomMedia said, on March 18, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I work in Broadcast and have worked in online video as a shooter and story producer news and I disagree with alot of what was said above.

    This is such an overgeneralization of what it takes to create online media.

    Some of your examples like the typing cop show an incompetent producer / editor and not a major flaw with the idea of the cutaway.

    Web video is still a visual medium and to not cut around where and interviewee may be stumbling looking for the right phrase, would just make him/her look stupid and like he wasn’t credible. There are alot of experts who know their field better than anyone but do a terrible interview.
    It could take them 20 mins to get their point out. Or they could jump from point to point not finishing one thought and then coming back to that thought later.

    No one is going to watch an interveiw like that …they will turn it off and if you stop using b-roll to cover the edits it’s going to appear like you’ve manipulated his words to fit your narrative.

    And just imagine if you tried to have that expert talk straight down the lens. His eyes would be darting all over the place so not only would he sound stupid but he’d look shifty. Not to mention the holes in who he’s talking to which @NickE brought up so nicely

    I could literally write for an hour on all the massive holes in your ideas that wouldn’t work in the field and why they wouldn’t come translate to video. It seems like you’ve never done interveiws or sat in a edit suite and tried to make a world renowned expert not sound like a raging idiot.

    I agree that Web journalism has an opportunity to break from TV journalism. But the conventions of visual storytelling won’t change. Timing and pacing can change but a viewers reaction to what they’re watching will stay the same.

    I have nothing to say about transparency and puff pieces That I agree with but I think you sound green while talking about the actual creation of visual news.

  13. Adam Westbrook said, on March 18, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    @Jimdela – Agreed, video doesn’t have to tell the whole story, but can let readers delve more into a specific element of it. I also agree that attention span is a challenge both video and TV share..but I wonder whether ‘time-compression’ devices like voice over are as much to blame as they are a solution.

    @FocusedBoredomMedia – I see where you’re coming from, but you’ve misread a couple of my points.

    Firstly, I am not saying we should stop editing interviews. If you re-read the post, you’ll see I suggest replacing cutaways with quick flash dissolves (already being used in lots of places). That way you achieve succinct edits, but don’t pretend otherwise.

    Secondly, from personal experience I have found interviewees quite comfortable talking into the lens. If you watch this clip ( you’ll see a guy with no previous media experience and no preparation taking to it very well. Does it work for every scenario? No, but again, if you read my article you’ll see I’m not suggesting it should.

    And overall I think you’ve confused these specific online video ideas with a daily television news production process, which I very clearly distinguish between.

  14. Tim McCarty said, on March 18, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    I’m all for retooling coverage for web video; mostly because of what compression does to video (especially panning or moving video) in the upload process. Web is after all just another delivery medium whose requirements need to be considered.

    But from my perspective as a veteran production pro and now video teacher, your premise here I think is based on the notion that broadcast news somehow created these conventions – that’s not correct in my opinion. News shooters use techniques developed way before TV was even invented.

    (I also bristle at the implied notion here that ‘journalists’ need to save the day by ‘improving’ broadcast news video coverage.)

    In fact, broadcast news coverage conventions – like documentary coverage conventions and filmmaking coverage conventions – are based on the single camera technique. Set up, light, expose, frame, compose, focus, rehearse, shoot…stop recording… Then, move the camera to another position and repeat!

    Standups, like interviews in docs or principle photography in film, are (Aroll, or A cam) shot separately from the cover video (Broll). It’s designed to facilitate editing, a field tested technique that’s lasted since it was developed in the ’20’s by guys with heavy box film cameras trying to crank at 24 frames a second. Single cam is also what makes matched or invisible editing possible.

    Frankly, we teach single camera technique as a foundational skill whether your planning to shoot web video, news, films, docs…whatever. Unless you have 50 cameras fed into a TV truck to cover the Masters, single camera is where it starts! In fact, my students laugh at me when they hear me railing on YouTube because 90% of the amateur video on there is just like the very first “documentary” films before editing and you guessed it, single camera technique!

    Adam, if you want to improve shooting technique for the web and anywhere else, encourage more learning of the craft, the use of proper equipment, single cam shooting technique, tripods and for God’s sake some decent microphones!!

  15. FocusedBoredomMedia said, on March 18, 2011 at 9:05 pm


    I re read my first post and didn’t mean it to come across as aggressive as I now believe it did. I will stick by my point that it’s hard to just address these points without getting into larger issues.

    I have re read the points you made and all my points earlier are directed at a web based content 2 – 8 min long news/documentary style format. Something that gives more context to a story than the blip you get on broadcast news.
    And I’ve also watched the links now which give me a better context to where you are coming from.

    I have shot something like a thousand web based interviews. As well as worked as a producer to try to define a format that worked for online content at And I have found outside of the “media class” most people don’t come across as well as the guy in the link you provided.

    The other issue is that the few videos you linked to are commercials or testimonials. They aren’t interviews.
    However the link “point one” of the OP does have a down the barrel response that works. But you hear the interviewer’s questions in order to change thoughts (and I personally never like the voice of god type questions) but his answers are also driving the narrative. And it works because of the teleprompter. You still see his thoughts before he answers. it feels like a conversation.
    The conversation feel is the difference between his clip and your clips. His feels less presentational.

    @ Tim Mcarty has it right as far camera and single camera technique. I’m guessing by the look of the shots you are shooting on the canon 7D or T2i which I can understand why you just locked off the frame. But there is no technique to that and there is really a technique and art to single camera shooting.

    I would love to see some of your examples outside of that library environment. Maybe on the fly street interviews or a longer format interview or something handheld at a rally or something. Those editing and camera techniques seem to only apply to this one very controlled situation. (Camera locked off on sticks in a controlled lighting environment.)

    And that situation only works if you are talking to someone who wants to tell you everything. If it is an interview and the person is evading or uncomfortable do you think they are going to continue to look at the lens? What if they then get offended and their mood shift between the last point they were looking at the lens and the next. Then there is an large emotional shift that can’t be accounted for.

    And You said that this technique can’t be used all the time but I would love to see other examples where this technique works.

  16. john said, on March 22, 2011 at 7:16 am

    I think what is really important is that people that presents the news should be true to the people. Due to the technological advances such as online tv, information can be spread in a a matter of minutes thus credibility is a major issue.

  17. […] still a bit green about video journalism (haven’t you been reading our blog!?), Adam’s 5 TV News Conventions Video Journalists Should Scrap is a good place to look at what not to […]

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  19. gregg dourgarian said, on March 23, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    got here after searching for ‘entrepreneurial journalism’. great stuff Adam, tx!

  20. […] a migrant worker caught in the camps on the Tunisian border. We have television reports with their obvious conventions, but we don’t have the combination of powerful still images and the subjects speaking for […]

  21. seaphotog said, on March 27, 2011 at 5:30 am

    one point on your last point – I don’t believe viewers are patient enough or visually literate enough anymore to “get” the kind of storytelling Wells and Lang were doing. I am hopeful that maybe we’ll come back to that with online, but I wonder.

  22. Mike Borland said, on March 28, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    I’m not sure what prompts some to declare video storytelling online needs to invent itself as a new and different form.
    Well executed video stories play well to a variety of audiences.
    On the specific points.
    .01. Awkward or forced framing is bad. Looking directly at the lens can be awkward for both the subject or viewer.
    .02. Noddies. No, they aren’t good very often. But flash wipes aren’t either. Video of what the subject is talking about often works and, as you point out, viewers are smart enough to know the interviews are edited. You wrote “Just because TV news wants to trick its viewers doesn’t mean online video journalists should too!”. No, we don’t want to trick viewers.
    .03 Voiceovers, or a reporter using his writing skills to add understanding while showing video that further enhances understanding is desirable. When done well the result is a well-informed viewer. TV stories are often a collaboration and when the team does its job well it’s a beautiful thing!
    .04 Agreed. Too often a story tries to make too many points and none is explained well. Simplify, focus on one or two and the result improves. Be accurate of course. Timeliness is still important as it is an element of news! If you are too slow telling a complete story the bulk of your audience may have moved on.
    .05 Yes. Be transparent. Be mindful that many people will only watch the video so source information in the text portion of a story might not be read. Treat the video portion like it will be the only thing the viewer sees.
    Adam, you’ve made a lot of people think. Thanks for doing that!

    • Adam Westbrook said, on March 28, 2011 at 10:11 pm

      Thanks for your input Mike! One reply:

      You said: “I’m not sure what prompts some to declare video storytelling online needs to invent itself as a new and different form.”

      Why shouldn’t they? I imagine the same was said of impressionism or cubism or surrealism in the early 20th Century. Were those critics right?

      Reading back over the comments, a lot of the negative reaction has come from people with years of experience in mainstream television news, and whose views are totally valid…however it just convinces me even further that innovation will not come from that quarter, and therefore experimentation and innovation online is all the more important.

  23. cyndygreen said, on March 28, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    Adam – I will agree with you, have minor disagreements and totally disagree with you on the above post.

    Agree: always willing to try new methods/anything that works to reach the audience.

    Agree: get rid of cutaways and noddies (as you call them). This practice goes back to the days of film and I agree it is not necessary any more…but realize the history of the technique, which was NOT meant to deceive. And they do get in the way and ARE all about getting reporter facetime on air.

    Disagree: voiceovers. Would YOU handicap a print reporter by telling them they could not use anything but quotes? Would you handicap yourself by not allowing captions for your still photographs? Or would you allow a series of inarticulate interviews to mumble on forever?

    This is an insult: “Skin deep storytelling.” Realize that TV is a much different medium than print – which is a MUCH different medium than the web. TV news is based on available time and it IS often a summary or headline service. But this is all most people want when they watch TV. You also need to take into account that the inclusion of nats, interviews, narration, visuals all woven together are greater than the individual parts.

    Agree: you have problems with journalists in your country…over here crediting is done much more often but NOT all of the time. Guess we’ll call this one a draw.

    FINALLY – video is NOT new. Maybe to you and your kindred – but not to the people who know it and have worked with it for decades. Just a poor analogy.

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  28. […] would see the cut. So I used cutaways to hide it. However I did better than in this example: Both Adam Westbrook (who recently posted some great tips how to shoot better video) and David Dunkley Gyimah  give […]

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