Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

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.

Advertisements

Choose your multimedia, wisely

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 12, 2009

He chose, poorly

"He chose, poorly"

Video, audio, pictures, timelines, slideshows, maps….multimedia’s great isn’t it? As a journalist it gives you an amazing choice of how to treat a story.

But how many journalists use that choice? And how many chose wisely?

In order to know which medium to use for which story, you must know its strengths and weaknesses; not of the software or  the content – but of the very medium itself.  Because some mediums are only good for some things.

Video

With so much talk about video journalism, it’s not surprising so many journalists take a camera out and shoot whatever they can. I rarely see a big multimedia project without any video in it. And that’s a shame, because video, really, is only good at a couple of things. And bad for some others.

Video/Film/TV whatever you want to call it, is great for showing action. For evoking an emotional response. For creating atmosphere….so use it for this.

But video is bad, really bad, for getting across facts, figures, and complicated arguments. That’s why overloaded documentaries and TV reports are so dull.

Writing about online video’s older, more glamorous sister, television news, BBC journalist Vin Ray says:

“The problem for television news is that it is at once both an immensely powerful medium, and yet an inadequate way of explaining complicated issues in a comprehensive way.

“Academics, sociologists and newspaper columnists the world over have criticised the shortcomings of television news for years, but they have rarely – if ever – come up with a realistic, practical alternative.”

So whatever your story, save the complicated bit for another type of medium. Use video to show us something happening, or make us angry or sad. Video is the ultimate medium though in many ways because – done correctly – it is totally engrossing. We surrender ourselves to it and you can make an impact with video. It’s great to use as an opening gambit to suck your audience in.

Audio

In a world where pictures dominate, the power of radio is often underestimated. This is a mistake though because audio’s power to penetrate the mind is very strong. And don’t forget, while in the US, UK and Europe we may prefer to watch films on our laptops, in the developing world, millions upon millions of people live with a radio by their side.

Still unsure of audio’s power? Robert McLeish sums it up perfectly in Radio Production:

“It is a blind medium but one which can stimulate the imagination so as soon as a voice comes out of the loudspeaker, the listener attempts to visualise what they hear and to create in he mind’s eye the owner of the voice.

“Unlike (video) where the pictures are limited by the size of the screen, radio’s pictures are any size you care to make them”

With the size of most web video players that should hit home even harder. So think: if you haven’t got or can’t get the amazing pictures which show your audience what you want, some good audio interviews and vivid writing can let the audience do the work inside their own head.

And audio’s other strength is the fact it is uni-sensory: you can listen to audio, while doing something else.

Audio weaknesses though are the same as videos: as a temporal medium it is exceptionally bad at explaining complicated issues comprehensively. So again, save it for the emotional/action/umbrella elements of your piece. And it is very reliant on good quality sound – and good voices. This piece by the New York Times is excellent…but weakened by the monotonous drone of the voice over.

If you’re going to use sound, please make sure it’s high quality!

Images

The renaissance in photography thanks to the internet reminds us of how powerful the still image can be.  Of course it’s cheaper and quicker to produce photos for your multimedia project than video or audio; but don’t mistake that with easier. If you’re going to take photographs which have an impact you’re going to need a good SLR, and you’re going to need to know your f-stop from your shutter speed (and, indeed, how they are related!)

So when should you use photographs and slideshows in your work? It’s weaknesses are the same as video – but then you would never use a photograph to convey information. The photo is about that one moment in time, and because of that it is about smacking your  audience across the face with some emotional trout. Use it to make them feel something about your story.

And some great advice from multimedia experts Duckrabbit:

“The point about a still photo is that your eye explores it. When you put too much motion into a slideshow you’re removing the viewers ability to pause and reflect, to explore.

“Slow pans on a big screen look great … but at the small size the images are reduced to on our computer screens the panning looks as rough as a dogs dinner that even the dog refuses to eat.”

Give your audience time to explore your photographs.

Text (and quotes, maps, graphics)

Poor text. The original medium, it’s kind of been given a back seat by those of us too excited by the glitz and glamour of the video camera and the audio recorder.

But text covers the other media’s ass – because it’s the one which can get across all these details, background, statistics; all the things the audio visual mediums are rather poor at.

There’s no escaping it: if you’re going to be a multimedia journalist, you need to be damn good writer; being a great editor, or good voice don’t cut it. So use text to convey the nuts and bolts of your story, but make sure you don’t bore them while you’re doing it.

Maps, tables and graphs are great assistants to this: they can brighten up a page of text and add an element of interactivity. And text too becomes interactive, the moment you put in a hyperlink.

So remember: as a multimedia journalist you have a choice. So use it!