Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Broadcast Journalists: Read before shooting!

Online video & entrepreneurial journalism

By Adam Westbrook

10 common video storytelling mistakes (and how to avoid them)

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on October 24, 2011

Five years after Youtube’s birth there’s probably not a newsroom in the land that isn’t trying to do video journalism in some way or another.

I say ‘trying’ because, as you’ll probably have seen, the vast amount of online video produced just doesn’t cut it. It’s long, boring, technically poor – and amateurish. This is a big shame because online video – done well – has the power to be an art form, to touch people, to make them understand something, to make them care.

As well as training journalists all over Europe in how to do video storytelling, and watching a helluva lot of video stories, I’ve also been teaching student journalists at Kingston University how to do video for more than two years. And in that time I’ve seen all the classic mistakes made. Here’s my run down – as always, if I’ve missed one off, stick it in the comments.

10 common video mistakes (and how to avoid them)

.01 you don’t prioritize sound

I’m actually gonna stick this one at the top because it’s probably the most common mistake. I’ve seen far too many video stories where the interview is practically inaudible, drowned out by traffic, air conditioning or something else. The cause? Not using an external microphone.

Audiences seem quite happy to tolerate poor quality pictures – they don’t mind mobile phone footage for example; but they will not tolerate crappy sound. End of. Invest in a good quality clip microphone for interviews and a Rodemic or similar for on board sound.

.02 you get too caught up in kit

We’ve all met one of these guys before: a ‘depth-of-field-Dave’ who’s more interested in whether you’re shooting on a prime lens than what the story is. They’re the sort of folk who make those music montages on Vimeo where everything looks very pretty and is out of focus, but expresses no meaning.

Kit matters – to an extent – but I believe a good story is a good story whether you shot it on the iPhone 4S or a Canon 5D MkII. At the same time, a poor story is not rescued by a shallow depth-of-field…in fact, it looks just that: shallow.

(NOTE: you’ll almost certainly be able to trawl back through the archives of this blog and find posts where I rave about depth-of-field: let’s just say I’ve grown as a film maker!)

Image: Francois Schnell on Flickr

.03 you don’t use a tripod

What’s the quickest way to ensure professional looking footage in any situation? Don’t move the camera!

It’s that simple. Flip cams, iPhones and DSLR cameras are the most susceptible to looking amateurish when hand-held, because they’re so light. Invest in a light set of Manfrotto sticks and use them for everything. Of course, handheld footage is powerful, and necessary, in certain situations – but more often I see it used as a technique through laziness rather than intention.

.04 you don’t shoot in sequences

This one is the bane of anyone who has to teach video to fresh faces: I personally invest hours of class time in explaining, demonstrating and showing examples of sequences in action – and when they don’t appear in finished pieces it’s exasperating.

Sequences – put simply – are a series of shots, showing a single action, creating the illusion of continuous movement. They are the hallmark of cinema, television news and now online video. What’s the difference between amateurs and professionals? Pros shoot sequences.

.05 you parachute into stories

One great advantage of online video journalism over television news is the absence of such tight deadlines. Online, journalists in the future are likely to work inside niches, and therefore will have time to build up contacts, develop relationships and explore stories before taking out the camera.

I can’t underestimate the importance of spending time with your subject/character before filming. Photojournalists have always done this very well, and the photogs who’ve moved to video have brought with them their investment in character. Those moving from television tend to do things the TV way: a quick pre-interview on the phone, then turn up, get the shots and get out.

Which one do you think works better?

.06 you try to copy television

On a similar theme, another big mistake new video journalists make is trying to copy what they see on CNN. Let me be clear: television news is highly formulaic, and it’s a formula designed to work within the tough day-to-day rigour of turning a story round in 3 hours. It works great for TV and that’s good for them.

But to see that formula infect this new genre of online video is heartbreaking in someways – partly because it is so young, and the potential so great. So switch off your TV – and if you have to seek inspiration from anywhere, try your local cinema.

Image credit: Dave Kellman on Flickr

.07 your stories are too long

It’s a well worn (although difficult to back up) belief that online attention spans are short and therefore video should be equally short too. Whether this is true or not, video should always be as short as it could possibly be. As Orwell said, ‘never use a long word when a short one will do.’

If you can tell your story in 90 seconds, why bulk it out to 3 minutes? You’re just wasting everyone’s time. This requires a certain ruthlessness – but if you can train yourself to ‘kill your babies’ as the saying goes, you’ll be a better journalist for it.

.08 you don’t understand storytelling

There are too many journalists who call themselves ‘multimedia storytellers’ or ‘digital storytellers’ or ‘visual storytellers’ but who have never read Robert McKee’s Story or The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (NB: affiliate links).

Storytelling is an ancient art, a craft, that survives human generations because it is without doubt the best way to help people comprehend the world around them. If you care about storytelling at all, you’ll try to master its secrets.

.09 you tell and don’t show

I remember the first video story I did while training at City University some years ago. We felt pretty proud of ourselves: we had a good story and what we made looked like a proper TV news package. But our lecturer wasn’t impressed: ‘you’ve just made radio with some pictures over the top’.

Image: mac_ivan on Flickr

And she was right: our film was laden with long rambling voice over scripts, dull soundbites and the pictures were wallpaper that didn’t add to the story. I’ve always remembered that lesson, and now remember the importance of using pictures to show the story happening and not to describe it.

.10 you don’t play to video’s strengths

Finally, video today is used because it can be, and not because it should be. There is too much video coverage of conferences, long interviews with boring people, and attempts to use video to cover council politics.

Video is good at some things: emotion, action, movement, detail, processes. It is terrible at other things: numbers, meetings, politics, court cases, and anything that doesn’t happen on camera.

The solution? Use video for its strengths – and keep the camera in your bag for the rest.

Some of these are one-step quick actions which will instantly improve your video storytelling; the rest are mindsets and attitudes that take longer to change. But until we get past those, online video storytelling will not improve.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Temptations of the Internet

How copyright law's "fair use" doctrine can help you legally use the things you find on the web.

Originally published in Dow Jones Newspaper Fund's Adviser's Update, Spring 2006

by Gary Clites

The laws of copyright and plagiarism have been a challenge for publication advisers as long as there have been photocopiers. But with the advent of the Internet and students' easy access to the intellectual property of others, the temptation on deadline to fill those little holes in the newspaper with material easily downloadable has become more and more intense.

Let's face it. We all know that it is highly unlikely a major publication or corporation would sue a student newspaper for grabbing a photo off the 'net to fill a space. But we also know it is bad educational policy to allow our students to bend the rules of copyright to solve their layout problems. Generally, that means requiring students to get written or at least verbal permission before using anything they download off the Web in a student publication. We also know how difficult it can be to get professionals to respond to student requests for permission to publish.

A little known tenet of copyright law may allow you to use some of the items students commonly download off the Internet without getting permission and in a perfectly legal manner.

"Fair Use" is a concept within copyright law which allows for the use or reproduction of copyrighted material under certain circumstances and for particular purposes. Specifically, Section 107 of Title 17 of the United States Code related to copyright law states that: "...the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright." (To read the complete section, go to http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html.)

What does this mean to student publications? The portions of the law which refer to fair use for criticism, comment and news reporting can allow student reporters, especially those writing entertainment reviews, to legally download and republish portions of text from web sites and books, lines of dialogue from movies and TV shows, portions of lyrics for CD reviews, and, more usefully, illustrations to go along with any of these stories.

Let's be honest. Most of what our students want to download for use in their publications is not snippets of movie dialogue or quotations from novels, but rather bright, professional photos and art they can use to dress up their pages. Does copyright law's reference to "fair use" mean that students have a right to grab any illustration they want off the Internet and republish it? Hardly.

Fair use does allow for the republication of small amounts of material taken from the original owner of the copyright if the purpose is to convey the flavor and nature of the thing being written about and if the use does not diminish the value of the copyrighted material. Huh?

While the law is intentionally flexible and vague, in practice, (and remember, though I have two degrees in journalism, I am not an attorney) it means that students can probably legally use a lot of the things they find on the web. Students could illustrate a review of Seventeen magazine with a photo of the cover of the magazine. For a review of the movie Poseidon, they could go to Warner Brothers' official web site for the film and legally download a photo of a scene from the movie to illustrate the article. For a story about new Fall TV shows, they could visit the sites of the network programs and legally download publicity photos of the shows talked about in the article. For an article about the work and career of Green Day, students could legally visit the band's own official web site, download publicity photos of the group on stage, and then scan the cover of their latest album to complete their need for illustrations.

All of this would commonly be considered fair use of the material and, one might note, would constitute student journalists using the same kind of illustrations and publicity materials that are commonly distributed to writers for major press outlets by the studios and stars to generate the publicity and coverage they need to promote their products. Copyright law asks two things of your students, however: That they get their material directly from the owner of the copyright and that they identify the owner of the copyright when they use it. This requires that a note be published along with any illustration indicating the source of the material ("photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures," for example).

What are the limits of the fair use doctrine? A student writing a story about Shaquille O'Neal might be able legally to visit his official website, www.shaq.com, to grab a publicity photo. She could not, however, visit Sports Illustrated's site to download a photo of Shaq published by that magazine. Doing so would definitely violate the magazine's copyright. A student writing about the MySpace web site could legally download and publish the site's logo. He could probably not, however, legally publish copyrighted photos of bands included on various teenager's MySpace pages since the photos do not come directly from the band and the copyright ownership is in question. If an individual band has its own MySpace site, using a photo belonging to the band in a story about them would, however, be legal.

And while a student writing about the school shootings at Santee High School in California could probably visit the school's own web site and download a photo of the school from that site (something my students did), she could definitely not borrow a photo from WashingtonPost.com of students fleeing from the shootings without getting permission from the copyright owner, either the Post or a third party like the Associated Press.

The crucial things to remember are that to be legally available for "fair use," an image must be directly illustrative of the thing you are reviewing or commenting on in print; it must be copied directly from the source which must be a subject of the article and the owner of the copyright and; it must be accompanied by a note which acknowledges the owner of the copyright.

Fair use will never allow students to legally download news photos or other such material which belongs legally to other professional publications. It can, however, allow them to legally illustrate reviews and other features about entertainment and public figures who make their images available over the Internet.

(For more information on "Fair Use" and other copyright issues, visit the Student Press Law Center's excellent legal resources at http://www.splc.org/legalresearch.asp. For an excellent in depth article about the subject by an attorney, read Barbara Weil Gall's article "What is 'Fair Use' in Copyright Law?" on the Gigalaw web site at http://www.gigalaw.com/articles/2000-all/gall-2000-12-all.html

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Use your voice!

Now that you've read the first three chapters, choose a character and retell the story thus far using that character's voice.  You may choose from Scout, Jem, Dill, Cal, Atticus, Miss Caroline Fisher, Miss Stephanie Crawford or Boo.  Try to be original.  Due by 8 p.m. Sunday, September 25.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Think in pictures.

Review the best of the 2010-2011 school year of this journalism/digital photography course at Ventura High School.  What makes these photographs so powerful?  What might they have in common?  How can you take some of these models and apply them to your work in our class?  Access the site using the link below: 


Due Monday, September 19.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Welcome to journalism!

Please review the selected video clip on wimp.com (link below).  Given a position of authority in this news station, how would you respond to the reporter's error? Why do you believe the NAACP is considered an appropriate source for response to this story?  Join the blog and comment by Wednesday, September 8.