Highlights from “Storytelling and Digital Video.” This panel examined what has been accomplished so far in international reporting with digital video. It looked at innovative storytelling techniques, and how DV has transformed the role of video journalists.
Parisa Khosravi, Senior Vice-President & Managing Editor, International News Gathering, CNN
Raney Aronson, Associate Producer, ABC News; Spring 2000 IRP Fellow
Tom Bettag, Executive Producer, ABC News “Nightline”
Nancy Durham, Videojournalist, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
RANEY ARONSON: I’ve been working in DV for about four or five years now, primarily for ABC News, but also on an independent film that was funded initially by [the International Reporting Project].
The first thing I think that we can say is that the financial aspect of DV makes it possible for people to basically jump on a plane, go to a foreign country, and report on a story, which is really something that we couldn’t do previously. With the money that Pew gave me, I was able to go to India and report on something and come back with a product that we could broadcast.
One thing that I note in people who are in my generation is a lot of us went to college during some of the largest foreign stories that were broadcast on networks and CNN and other places. When we got out of college in the late 80’s and early ’90s, we started to see that the networks started closing their foreign bureaus.
Our access to actually work in international news was diminished. I think that it’s a great boon to people who really want to do international and foreign coverage to have this cheaper technology at our fingertips.That said, we always have the challenges that go along with that. How do you approach stories internationally if you are going either as a one-person team or if you’re going without the backing of a big foreign or national broadcast network?
Capturing good audio is something that we all struggle with. DV is best suited if you take audio into consideration when you’re doing very character driven stories when you’re focusing on one person. That way you can take a wireless microphone, and you can clip it on somebody and the audio is pretty good.
When you’re in a room like this, it’s very hard to capture great audio. It’s hard in meetings. It’s hard in situations that are basically more than two or three people to really get the kind of audio that we like when we try to broadcast something.
We go from having two or three people running a camera and having sound equipment to one person, and it diminishes the sound quality – which when you’re doing documentaries is really critical, as critical almost as the visuals.
I wanted to show a western audience the differences between Mumbai, which is Bombay, or Chennai, which is Madras. I really couldn’t do that with my DV camera. There’s a limitation to what the lens will do.
What we did was we focused on the street level. We got very intense street-level shots. It did capture the essence of the Indian streets but when I go from story to story in the documentary, you don’t really get a sense of change of place unless you are really familiar with India.
The one thing about DV that I have noticed is that a lot of times we don’t really treat it like a camera. We treat it like a reporter’s notebook, like anybody can sort of pick up this camera and go out and shoot a great documentary. I think that content-wise that may be true, but I think that a lot of us work in documentary to do graceful picture and sound combination. I believe that the operator who operates the DV camera is really critical to having a level of professionalism in the picture and also in the sound that really can bring your film to the next level.
You never really notice these little DV cameras and that’s good and bad. I think that in very sensitive situations, these little DV cameras are great. But as soon as you take the access into a room like this when you basically don’t know who is shooting or what is shooting, you have to make an effort when you’re shooting on DV to explain who you are and what you’re doing.
In Boston we’ve found that in many of the circumstances we’ve been in we shoot and people just assume that we’re students, and we’re actually a network camera from ABC News. We have to go through the trouble of saying we’re from ABC News, we’re shooting a documentary about the city of Boston. Then people get like, “Oh, my God. You are? On that camera?”
I think there is a certain amount of time where people won’t really understand that these are actually network cameras. It’s the challenge of having to put your self forward and say actually,[it is] a network camera.
I hope that the bar will continue to rise, that we keep expecting that professional people who have great backgrounds in film and video will start using DV cameras more and more, and that we’ll use this tool to create great documentaries.
NANCY DURHAM: I talk about being a videojournalist which translates to solo journalism. I fell into this by invitation. My background is radio. I was invited to become a television news correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corpora-tion (CBC) in London about 10 years ago. I had three years of doing straight everyday news. It was a tremendous experience. I learned a lot about writing to pictures and doing fast turnaround stories.
I also ultimately felt that it wasn’t real journalism because I almost never left the bureau except to do my on-camera, my stand-up. Although it was a lot of fun for a while, the thrill wore off. Right around that time some quite good High-8 cameras were coming out and were available to people like me. The CBC said, “How would you like to be an experiment?” I know a lot of people at the time were sort of laughing at the idea and didn’t think it would work.
I couldn’t wait to take up the camera because I thought this was going to be my chance to be doing real journalism again. I reported from all over the world with my audio radio tape recorder kit so I knew about traveling all by myself and going to places and looking for stories. This was, I thought, a real gift. I took it up with enthusiasm and I’m still very enthusiastic about working this way. I think it is an old-fashioned way of working because you actually go to the scene of the crime, you knock on the door, you go to the country, or whatever.
My method is to go and to try to find a story after I’ve arrived and try to go with the flow that I run into and not carry a storyboard in advance. I allow the unpredictability of this way of working to carry me along. It’s nerve-racking at first but there is always a story to find, especially in the kinds of places where I’ve been hanging out, and that is mostly in the Balkans over the past 10 years.
I was in Albania trying to investigate people smuggling. When I filmed these initial shots, it was last October and November in Albania. I was doing just a short story for the CBC. Based on the material I had, I went over to the BBC because I thought it was pretty hot and it could make a longer form documentary.
The BBC bought the story just like that and said that they would fund a 45-minute documentary which goes out Sunday night on Britain which I’m very thrilled about.
They also gave me a huge budget and a producer and another camera operator and part of the marching orders were to go back and see what else we could get from Albania. When we did go back to Albania I explained to the producer, “This will be a different kind of experience for you. You just have to wait when you get there. I have these smugglers. They consider me a friend now. I’m in there but we will just wait. We can’t be pushy. We can’t say what time is the smuggling operation and when are we going to get this and when are we going to get that.” If you can just be very patient, I think the world opens up to you and working solo with a small camera, taking your time and not pushing anybody is my secret weapon. We did get more stuff on the return trip to Albania but it was more difficult and it wasn’t as rich as the first time out.
I don’t want to talk too much about this being inexpensive because I think that suggests the journalism is less somehow. In fact, I think working at low cost, taking a long time to gather your material or a longer amount of time actually can be a richer kind of journalism.
But because it’s inexpensive, I think that the CBC has been very willing to let me just go and see what I can get. They are not exactly sure what I’ll bring back but they will let me check it out.
Having the luxury of a few more days on a story than an expensive news crew can afford does give you a chance to have this sort of exclusivity and scoopiness.
I think I got my share of them in Kosovo by using this same method. I repeatedly went there throughout the conflict on many occasions before, during, and after the war to follow the same group of people. I just wanted to see how they would progress, and it’s a really long and fantastic story of deaths and lives and all kinds of things.
I refute any suggestion that working alone makes me more vulnerable to propaganda. Otherwise, you’re just tarring radio reporters and print reporters, too, who work alone. I think the way I work allows me to get in at more vulnerable moments.
In Britain there are very few people working like this in the mainstream. Sue Lloyd Roberts at the BBC is the real pioneer. I think she was a year or two ahead of me there.
I talked to her the day I was flying out just to see if I’m on the same wavelength. She thinks that there is still that old view that one person really can’t do a proper job on their own. I strongly disagree. This has nothing to do with being against crews or any other kind of news gathering but I’m amazed it hasn’t caught on much more in the mainstream.
The CBC is doing a lot of video journalism work, more than many other countries or networks, I think. We’re opening bureaus in the nether regions of Canada. It’s driven by cost. It’s not driven by the magic and the mystique of old-fashioned news gathering.
I think foreign bureaus are really a place where a lot of the experimenting is happening. Hats off to my colleague in Paris, Paul Workman, who does his own shooting for news, daily turnaround stuff.
Half of the things he’s shooting he’s doing himself for news. I think maybe foreign places are safe to experiment.
TOM BETTAG: I think, first of all, this is a collection of people who should consider themselves intelligent or semi-intelligent journalistic guerrillas.
Not only guerrillas but entrepreneurs who are here to expose the lie that the American people don’t care about foreign news, which is just ab-solutely patently false. Commercial television is hopelessly stuck in this notion that people don’t care about foreign news. It’s so deeply imbedded that they just do stupid things. I was just stunned when the terrorists attacked the tourists at Luxor and nobody covered it in the United States because people don’t care about foreign news. If you don’t think that a murderous attack on tourists in the Valley of the Kings is a world-class story, you are really off the mark and American television is really off the mark.
If only 30 percent of the American people care about foreign news and they are not being served by anybody, that is an absolute void. The pure commercial exploitability of that! Give me 30 percent of the American market and let me have it all to myself. I’ll take that any time.
I think it is important not to talk about what we ought to do but what we can do, what is absolutely doable. I think the important starting point is with the ethical part of this.
I’m glad this [conference] is in a place where the central word [is] “journalism,” because I think we need to know how dangerous this form is and how much it’s going to be exploited by people who are not journalists for really evil ends.
We are now in a world where the journalist goes out, shoots, edits and delivers you a finished product. The dangers that are inherent in that are just massive and the number of frauds that will happen are massive. There are going to be so many charlatans out there that you are going to live and die on your personal reputation in a way with standards that have to be infinitely higher than the standards that are being used by network television news at this point.
Fred Friendly always had this great New Yorker cartoon of this man and woman on a desert island, and she is standing there with her arms crossed and saying: “I’d know. That’s who would know.” I think there is just going to be [this] inner voice that says: “I’d know. That’s who would know.” Because the temptation to say there is this great shot that I can get if I can only get that person to walk through it again, to recreate that event. Once you start talking yourself into that, death lies behind it.
The people whom I think are most successful are the radio people who have become very good at that narrative voice, who are already used to working in this “Internet-microphone” world. [I] find a lot of problems with still photographers who are not – that’s not the world that they work in. When the narrative voice is right, I think it’s fabulous.
Ira Glass, who does “This American Life” on [Public Radio International] says, “The problem with television is it doesn’t talk like people talk.” [The] great joy in all of this is that narrative voice doesn’t have to be that big travelogue voice. There is the delight and surprise that goes with NPR. I think this really does have the capability of having that NPR voice. Truly you can be guerrillas and change things completely in finding that voice and finding the voice of other people. You can change television completely. It’s infinitely easier to do that in a foreign setting than it is here for all the union rules, for all of that.
Foreign stories are just intrinsically more interesting. There’s nothing duller than trying to do a really good education story these days. Every classroom looks alike. In the early ’90s we did drug stories endlessly. People stopped doing them because they all look alike. This glut of domestic stories is turning people off.
I think of looking at foreign news not to cover the whole world but just what a fascinating world we live in and doing stories of “let me tell you about some interesting things.” The things that we have seen [here] are not foreign policy. I think this isn’t to do foreign policy stories. It is to just let Americans say, “God, it’s an amazing world out there.” I think that is the job that’s there.
NAVTEJ SARNA: Does this mean that the advent of this technology would lead to a greater amount of international news in the U.S. media?
BETTAG: I think the answer is absolutely yes. The notion that Americans don’t care about foreign news is a canard that’s put out by the accountants. When the networks were bought out by big corporations trying to cut costs, the foreign news cost twice as much as domestic news.
Somewhere the technology has wheeled around so that not only is it no more expensive but it is less expensive in this form. The people who should feel threatened by this are the people who are doing domestic news under union rules with old technology that won’t change.
I think just the economics of the thing can change it and given the glut, the magazine and broadcast [shows] trying to take domestic news to as crowded a highway as you possible can, there’s just a huge opening for somebody to kind of get the Rosetta Stone and do a number of foreign news programs that just leap out and say, “God, I really like that because that’s not like anything I’ve ever seen.”
ALISSA KRIMSKY: I’m wondering how you foresee the structure of international news production changing. Are you going to take more freelance producers?
KHOSRAVI: As far as CNN is concerned we think of ourselves very much as an international network. We have over 30 bureaus overseas and we’re not closing any of them. If anything, we’re opening up more.
Just this year we announced our Lagos bureau and our Sydney bureau. We see this equipment working well over there outfitting the bureaus. We are not changing all the equipment in the other bureaus.
We are right now sending this type of equipment as complementary and slowly training our people. We see ourselves spreading more and more places with this equipment rather than closing down bureaus and seeing the profits in that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Tom, you gave us some convincing arguments about American’s desire for foreign news against the backdrop of what often discourages us. Can you share any equally good news in terms of the potential for long-form documentary on network television?
BETTAG: No. Network television, meaning the three commercial networks, are going to be the last to change. They are going to be the most encumbered. I think of doing it on cable channels. I think there is enormous potential. I think there is this huge maw looking for content.
This room is filled with content providers. They’ve got this great pipeline and no content. The trick is can you produce it at a price that makes it usable for the cable channels which don’t have the same revenues, which don’t have the same audiences. Within this technology I think you can produce it at a price that you can sell to the cable channels at one-hour length. Again, there’s a huge sales job to be done. It’s got to be done by people who are very good.
It’s going to take some people who have great journalistic voices who know how to tell a story extremely well and there are going to be a lot of people who are going to either do it badly, or do it irresponsibly that are going to get in the way and impede that and make people hesitant about it.
KHOSRAVI: We actually had a gentleman come to us who had done a documentary on his own in Liberia. Stories like that where they go out on their own and they come back with the material they have spent weeks and months shooting — you just have to make sure that the people you are dealing with are credible journalists and that is most important to us.
We do have a documentary unit that looks at it that way and checks them out. We are very careful with material that we use as far as nothing should be staged. Nothing should be created for the shot. When you are dealing with people coming to you cold and you have no background on them, that is one of the primary reasons you have to check.
RICH BYRNE: I’m a former IRP Fellow and an editor at the Washington City Paper. I was curious, Parisa and Tom, we’re talking a lot about found video and the possibilities of charlatanism and finished products coming to you. What [are you doing with] this technology in terms of empowering the people that you have on staff to push them out into the field in a cheaper more effective way? What kind of an effect is it having?
BETTAG: Raney is the living example.
ARONSON: Right. I’m a staff person for ABC News but I had to take time off to go do this on my own. Ultimately, I hope part of it will air on ABC. It’s still a struggle for those of us who are staff people who are field producers and producers to go off and go do great adventure stories with small DV cameras.
KHOSRAVI: We are very careful in how we use the equipment and send our people out. As I said, we have 30 some bureaus and slowly are training people. We just brought Steve Harrigan, our Moscow correspondent, over to Atlanta and spent the week with him sending him into the field and doing domestic stories to get a sense for it. Now Steve has gone back and is proposing doing a whole series on Mongolia just going out on his own and doing that. We see it in that kind of use, but at this point it’s not going to be something that we count on as regular news coverage. It doesn’t yet lend itself to every situation.
Some of our interactive people, our CNN.com people, for example, in our Hong Kong bureau, we send them out to Indonesia where we do have a bureau, but they might go to Aceh and do a story there and use the material also on the web. We see it in cross platforms but not yet ready for deploying it everywhere and having everybody use it.
BETTAG: It empowers everybody. We have a six foot, seven inch tall, 300- pound cameraman, Fletcher Johnson, who is incredible, who walks in many situations mostly where it’s dangerous where he has to watch his back or whatever. He uses the camera incredibly effectively and we shouldn’t demean the craft of these great camera people. We can’t say everybody can do that. Putting them in the hands of the great camera people can produce stuff that they just can’t do with other things.
The other one to mention is the London correspondent who has become a really good shooter. It doesn’t apply to every story but it does apply to many stories. We can send him to Mongolia and have him come back with something that he can narrate – that he can shoot – and it raises all kinds of possibilities.
ARONSON: At least nationally DV is starting to be used a lot more. I shoot a lot of my own stuff on this Boston shoot, and a lot of people who shoot on this are staff people as well. At least nationally and domestically it’s starting to shift. We’ll see what happens internationally.
FARNAZ FASSIHI: I’ve been in situations abroad where I’ve been responsible for taking pictures for my stories and I find it gets in the way of finding the story, getting the quotes and the images. How do you juggle being responsible for shooting and reporting and talking to everyone? Does that get in the way?
DURHAM: I go very slowly. I’m not as cheap as you think. I take longer. There’s always a day that is for general visuals and on-camera, if one is required.
I’m slow. I’m careful. I have to go back. You talked about missing those shots. I do all the stuff that I can when the action is happening and I go back to get the other shots that you need to make. Time, organization, screening everything. It’s really hard. It’s really hard work but it’s fun.