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.

Advertisements