Some thoughts on multimedia reporting and storytelling

Not Everything We Call a “Story” is a Story
The writer and writing coach Jack Hart has noted that journalists have a habit of calling almost everything we do a story whether or not it has any narrative elements.

But…

A fact is not a story.
Information is not a story.
A place is not a story.
A person is not a story.
An event is not a story.

All of these can be the starting point for finding a story, but you have to do some work to uncover one.

Finding a Story is the Hardest Part
Before you get to the work of shooting and editing and putting your story together, the real work is learning to how to identify and pursue story that is worth your time and the audience’s time.

This doesn’t seem like it would be the case given that many countless pieces of news and media each day in the form of texts, messages, tweets, feeds, blog posts, online article, photos, podcasts, and videos. But in a digital age, information and media are fleeting. We consume them and then quickly move on to the next thing. A truly engaging and memorable story is rare.

As a multimedia storyteller, your goal is to find compelling stories and tell them in the most accurate and vivid way possible. This does not mean the stories have to long or intricate or earth-shaking (although at times they can be all of those things).

The best multimedia stories are engaging, surprising, informative, and provide the audience with an “experience” of being a witness to the events themselves.

This takes time, effort, and often a good bit of luck. The main task is to practice, learn from the experience, and keep practicing.

The “And what’s interesting…” Storytelling Test
If you think you have a story idea, then follow the following advice from NPR radio producer Alex Blumberg for determining if a reporter is on the right track to a good story. He  calls it the “and what’s interesting” test.

He writes:

You simply tell someone about the story you’re doing, adhering to a very strict formula: “I’m doing a story about X. And what’s interesting about it is Y.”

So for example… “I’m doing a story about a homeless guy who lived on the streets for 10 years, and what’s interesting is, he didn’t get off the streets until he got into a treatment program.” Wrong track. Solve for a different Y.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is there’s a small part of him that misses being homeless.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he developed surprising and heretofore unheard of policy recommendations on the problem of homelessness from his personal experience on the streets.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he fell in love while homeless, and is haunted by that love still.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he learned valuable and surprising life lessons while homeless, lessons he applies regularly in his current job as an account manager for Oppenheimer mutual funds.” Right track.

In other words, who the hell knows what you might find out. Just don’t settle for the story you already know. Find the exciting or surprising or unusual moment, and focus the story on that.

Here are some other takeaways from the article:

  • Don’t confuse a location or premise with an actual story.
  • In order to find a story, you need someone to talk to and a situation to discuss.
  • Trust the first question that comes to you. Figure out what question you want to answer or what story you want to hear. If the question seems obvious, chances are it’s a story.
  • Just because something is a story or takes the form of a story doesn’t mean it’s an interesting story.
  • Don’t pursue a story just because it’s story you’ve heard before. In fact, do the opposite. Look for the story that is the most surprising and unexpected.
  • People often tell you the boring part first. Sometimes they think it is exciting or think it’s what they are supposed to tell a reporter. Dig deeper. If you are bored, your audience will be bored.
  • Everyone has a story, but it’s not always that interesting or something you can adapt. If you don’t have a story, find someone else.

Go Online, Go Offline
In a digital age, the easiest place to look for story ideas is online. And there are many interactive ways to hunt down contacts and leads. Searching websites, existing news articles, databases, archives, records, blogs, social networks, Facebook groups, online forums, and listserves are all great places to begin.

As a reporter, you should be using all of them to find tips, background, events, sources, experts, and various points of view.

However, with multimedia reporting, it is impossible to do all of your reporting using the Internet, phone and email. To get the multimedia elements you need (photos, audio, video, etc) you must go offline. You must go somewhere where something is happening and meet people and talk to people in person.

“I think many of the best stories come from wandering around a city and wondering what the hell is going on,” says NPR business reporter Adam Davidson.

Immerse Yourself in Multimedia Journalism
If you want to be a painter, you study other painters. You take art classes, listen to lectures on art history, look at books of paintings, go to museums, and study techniques. If you want to be a multimedia journalist, you need to spend time exploring the masters of the craft.

Here are some places to begin:
Innovative Interactivity
Interactive Narratives
Multimedia Shooter
NYTimes.com multimedia
LATimes.com photography and multimedia
Duck Rabbit
Media Storm

Think Like a Multimedia Reporter
Multimedia journalism uses various media elements – text, photos, audio, video, and graphics – to tell a compelling news story. Which elements you select depends on the story itself. And it depends on the platform that is used to deliver the story to the audience.

The key is to embrace the freedom to use various tools and to understand how to take advantage of the unique qualities of each tool to tell the story in the most compelling way.

Think about which media elements might be best for your story. Each element has its own unique qualities and limits. (We will study each of these more in-depth over the course of the semester.)

Text
•    The entry point into any story through a headline.
•    Used to convey information, facts, history, and analysis.
•    Readers go at their own pace and choose what to read and when to stop.
•    Embedding hyperlinks into text allows the reader to navigate to additional resources on the web.

Photographs
•    Capture the visual aspects of a story.
•    Audience can instantly identify people, places, and events.
•    Capture a particular moment.
•    Convey the emotion and mood of story.
•    Illustrate a sequence or series of actions.

Audio
•    People telling stories about what has already happened in the past.
•    Taps into the power of the human voice – accents, intonation, emotion, etc.
•    Allows people to tell their own stories in their own words.
•    By itself, audio allows the audience to visualize elements of the story for themselves which engages the imagination.
•    Used alongside photos and video, audio complements the visuals.

Video
•    Capturing action or something as it happens in the present.
•    Combines qualities and visuals and audio.

Graphics
•    Useful for distilling, illustrating and conveying complex information in a visual manner
•    Can take multiple forms – maps, timelines, charts, graphs, etc.
•    Can be animated which allows audience to actively interact and manipulate.

Planning Your Reporting
Even before you know exactly what your story will be, you want to set a course for your reporting. Planning it out ahead of time will help you find most interesting aspects and help ensure that you get the material you need.

Before you go:
•    Do your research. Know enough to ask the questions that need to be asked.
•    Set up interviews. Have specific times and places to do your interviews. Have all of your subjects contact information. Confirm before you go. Tell the person you are interviewing that you have a deadline; if people can delay it they often will.
•    Prepare your interview questions.
•    Try to sum up your story in a paragraph to help you find the “nut graph.” What is the core of the story? You can revise this later.
•    Identify some of the main characters? What is the best way to gather their information, emotion, opinion?
•    Consider the location. Is it outside or inside, day or night, quiet or noisy?
•    Think about visual and audio elements. Is there something the audience would want to see? Are sounds important to the story? Is there action?
•    Coordinate with others. Are you reporting alone or with a team?
•    Be flexible. Be ready to ask questions you have not prepared. Be willing to explore an angle that you did not foresee.
•    Make sure your equipment is prepared and ready to go.

What’s in Your Multimedia Backpack?
Having the right tools and knowing how to use them is essential to multimedia reporting. Whether you are a beginner or an expert, you need to have equipment organized and ready to go.

Primary Tools
•    Cell phone or Smart phone
•    Audio recorder
•    Digital camera
•    Video camera
•    Notebook, pens

Accessories
•    Tripod
•    Microphones
•    Headphones
•    Chords and cables
•    Additional lenses
•    Extra memory cards
•    Batteries

Other suggested items
•    Equipment manuals
•    Heavy-duty tape (can always come in handy when you have to improvise)
•    Zip-lock bags (in case of weather)

“Make Your Own Luck”
Journalists (and journalism professors) love to talk about “making your own luck.” What it means is that the best reporters are prepared, quick to respond, and put themselves in situations where they might encounter a good story.

Seek out places that have action. Go to places where people gather, interact, perform, dress up, make money, lose money, debate, create, fight, participate, compete, protest, educate, and worship. Someone who sits in an office all day and works on a computer is good for background information or a quote, but they generally make for lousy multimedia.

Talk to more people than you need to. Ask your questions. Then ask them what questions they think you should be asking. Then ask, “Who else should I talk to?”

Look for new angles. A way to localize a national story? Are there missing viewpoints? What questions are left unanswered?

If something strikes you as odd, surprising, or too good to be true, check it out.

Spend as much time as you can reporting. If you can revisit a place more than once you often find new information that you did not get the first time.

Pay attention.

Above all, be curious.

Circle Back to the Story
It is easy to get lost in the logistics, technical aspects of your equipment, facts and all of the media that you are gathering.

So continually ask yourself, “What is the story?” Do this before you report, while you are reporting, after you have done your reporting, and while you are editing.

Return to the basic questions that will help you find and fashion your narrative:
•    What are you trying to convey?
•    Who are the characters?
•    Does something happen?
•    Is it surprising or unexpected?
•    Does the story present a dramatic question? Will the audience ask: What will happen next? How does this end?
•    Do you care about the story? If you do not, chances are your audience will not care either.

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