• Multimedia lesson #1: Forget what you know about “stories”

    By Reuben Stern
    Futures Lab deputy director, Reynolds Journalism Institute
    Missouri School of Journalism

    If you have even minimal experience with print (i.e., text) reporting, then all that stuff you know about identifying potential stories is likely to steer you wrong when you first set out to produce visual journalism and/or multimedia.

    Traditional text reporting, quite rightly, involves asking (and answering) a lot of questions: Who, what, where, when, why, how, how much, and so what?

    Some of the answers might involve a single set of simple facts. Others involve some sort of complex explanation. Or they might involve gathering various opinions or viewpoints on a situation or issue.

    All of those examples make for good journalism, but they typically lead to multimedia that is mediocre at best.

    So forget what you know for a moment, and start thinking differently.

    Multimedia storytelling tools (photo, video, audio) are best suited to capturing specific important moments or to transporting viewers/listeners to the place where something interesting is happening (i.e., giving the audience something that “you just have to see”).

    So the questions best answered via multimedia are different:

    • What is happening?
    • What does it look like?
    • How does it sound?
    • What are the important moments along the way?
    • What are the visual details that make this what it is?
    • What sort of emotions are involved (and potentially invoked)?
    • How are people behaving?
    • What kind of narrative thread might underpin the stuff going on?

    In other words, the focus of a truly multimedia “story” is not why an activity is happening, or what it means that the activity is happening, or how much it costs, or how the person decided to do that activity, or what people think of the activity, or what the implications of the activity might be in the future.

    Instead, the ideal subject of an effective multimedia piece is usually the activity itself. And your goal as a multimedia storyteller is to give the audience a chance to experience that place or activity or situation virtually — through your multimedia.

    The way to give them that kind of experience is to start off with something that is rich with sensory inputs: visuals, sound, motion, action, interaction, etc…. in other words, stuff you can observe firsthand with your eyes and ears rather than just by talking to people.

    Another way to think of it: Ideas that involve talking to people about what they know, what they think, or what they believe are usually best suited to text. Similarly, ideas that involve talking to people about something that happened in the past are more easily conveyed using text. (Sometimes you can track down archival visual or audio materials someone else might have recorded at the time, but that can be difficult and time-consuming).

    On the other hand, ideas that involve witnessing and recording what is happening or what people do… those are the kinds of stories that will make for good multimedia.

    So in other words, if you could report the material over the phone and/or by writing it down in your notepad, then it’s not a good multimedia idea, and you’d be better off sticking to text (or perhaps some form of graphic).

    There’s another way to think about this that might help: Imagine for a minute what an old-style silent-film version of the story you are proposing might look like. If you have a hard time seeing the possibilities for a compelling viewer experience, then you’re likely to have a difficult time making a good piece of multimedia out of the idea.

    Finally, it might help to remember that effective multimedia stories — even profiles — usually are not really about the person; instead, they focus our attention on the activity the person does. So…

    • Instead of a profile of a woman who loves dogs… a multimedia-driven window into what goes on inside the animal shelter she runs.
    • Instead of a profile of a woman who loves acupuncture… a multimedia exploration of how her acupuncture treatments are done.
    • Instead of explaining why someone would want to live an organic life… a multimedia examination of the work that goes into growing one’s own food on an organic farm that also supplies produce to 50 other families.

    To review, good multimedia story ideas center on at least a few of the following:

    • action/activity
    • situations or environments that are rich with sensory stimuli (i.e. sights and sounds)
    • personality/character(s) whose behavior/activity is noteworthy or unique
    • something you can personally observe and document firsthand
    • some kind of human or emotional dimension
    • specific moments that are worth witnessing, reliving and sharing with others

    Example 1: Trails

    The following is a typical story pitch:

    Columbia is home to many different bike paths and trails; it’s something we’re known for nationally. I think doing an expose on the trails would be great – I could talk about the people who use them (the walkers/bikers), the people who build them (City Council, City Manager, Parks & Rec Department), and the people who don’t like/want them. At the last city council meeting, there was a lot of pushback over the grindstone trail being put in a waterbed that’s really close to peoples’ properties.

    Notice that the pitch suggests “an expose” in which the reporter will “talk about” people who have a connection to the trails (i.e., the stakeholders). Overall it’s not a bad idea to look into (although “expose” implies there’s some problem to be uncovered). And for a text story it’s just fine, we can talk all we want.

    But remember, for multimedia, the operative word is “show.” So, let’s think about this as a multimedia story:

    • How much of the story’s focus can actually be communicated with photo, video, audio, etc. (as opposed to needing to be communicated in words)?
    • What activity, besides people walking/biking on the trail, is the reporter going to be able to show here?
    • What obstacles might get in the way of gathering those visuals?
    • How much of those visuals do we really need to see before it starts getting redundant?

    Using video, we’d get a pretty good sense of what trail use looks like in about 15-20 seconds, but then it would probably take about four to five times that long of voice-over narration to convey anything close to the crux of the story as proposed. So the ratio of words to visuals is too high for this to yield great multimedia. Plus, the visuals are not the key vehicle for communicating what this story proposes to tell us. They are mostly a secondary element.

    To be fair, the last point about the trail being close to people’s properties might ideally be conveyed with visuals, i.e. a detailed map and possibly photos/video if there is some kind of important erosion or other problem visible at the scene. But again, there’s still a lot of text needed to make sense of it all.

    So, it’s really a story best told in text with a few sidebar elements, rather than a truly multimedia story.

    Example 2: Hunting reserves

    Here’s another example:

    There are two ways to hunt in Missouri—on public land or on a big game hunting reserve. On a reserve, the recreational sport of hunting becomes a weekend game with territories across the state offering a private, high-fenced pen to hunt deer. Hunters pay to be guided on this private hunt with the promise that they’ll never leave the ranch empty-handed. This story will show what happens at these private hunting facilities, what’s involved in operating them, and give a sense of what the hunters get out of the experience.

    This is a much better pitch for multimedia reporting than the first example. Notice the whole focus of the idea is to give the audience a window into an activity that is happening right now in the present.

    Of course there are other non-visual side questions that will need get answered along the way (How much does this cost? Why do they think that price is worth it? What are the rules/regulations? etc.), but the main focus of the journalism is to take the viewer/listener to a place where something interesting is happening and give them the experience of witnessing what goes on in that place. It sets up the idea that our audience is going to meet interesting characters and be right there — via this multimedia — to experience something they would probably never get to experience in person by themselves.



    ----------Posted on August 28, 2013 by in 7802, Help Files

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