Should online video follow the same conventions as TV news? Adam Westbrook thinks not. In a provocative essay, he argues that several TV news conventions were developed to help journalists work faster and tell stories in less time–constraints that he believes do not apply to online video.
That’s debatable, of course. I’m not sure most online journalists have that much more time to shoot stories than their TV counterparts. And letting stories “run as long as the streaming platform will allow” doesn’t strike me as good practice, even though it’s technically possible. But even if you accept Westbook’s premise, there are good arguments in favor of keeping at least some of the conventions he wants to scrap.
Take the way interviews are typically framed–the “three-quarters shot,” as Westbrook describes it. Instead of having interviewees talk directly to the camera, they’re positioned so they face the person asking the questions. Multimedia journalist John McQuiston of WWSB in Sarasota, Florida, says it has nothing to do with speed.
Reporters realized that if you make the interviewee part of a conversation instead of a television production, the person will be more comfortable and more candid. It is the rare subject who is not immensely relieved when I tell them, “as best you can, ignore the camera and just talk to me.” If I do my job well, the camera becomes just another piece of furniture in the room. This cannot happen if you ask the interviewee to address the camera.
Westbrook also slams the convention of using cutaways to “splice an interview together without distracting the audience with your edits.” He calls that misleading and proposes replacing cutaways with flash wipes or dissolves. Now, I’m no fan of cutaways or reversals. My rule of thumb is to shoot them and use them only rarely, not because they’re misleading but because they’re boring. Even Westbrook admits you need to do something to cover jump cuts that could be distracting to the audience. I don’t see how flash wipes or dissolves are any less distracting.
A third TV “convention” Westbrook wants to dump is the use of voice-overs. He contends TV never does stories without them, which is demonstrably untrue. (Check the stories on this year’s winning NPPA Television News Photographer of the Year entry.) Westbrook is right, however, when he says voice-over is used “to cover gaps in narrative and explain complicated things in a short space of time.” And that’s a good thing. As McQuiston points out, “summarizing is the essence of a reporter’s job.”
There is another reason for voice-overs: It’s easier on the viewer. A reporter who has had time to reflect and write something should be able to explain something more concisely than an interview subject speaking extemporaneously. This is true even if your medium theoretically allows you all the time you want to tell your story.
It’s hard to argue with Westbrook ‘s final two points. TV news should be more transparent about the source of video. A lack of transparency is what got a Minnesota station in trouble with the FCC, after running a video news release without identifying the source. And TV news should do more than scratch the surface. With fewer time constraints, online video stories can go deeper. Butas McQuiston points out, “Don’t mistake having time to go in-depth for an excuse to bore someone with an unfocused narrative that doesn’t justify the time you ask them to invest in watching it.”
In the end, McQuiston argues, the things that make video worth watching on television, including steady shots and good lighting, still apply online.
The people telling you how new and different online video and one-man-band reporting are are trying to sell you something. And it’s a bag of excuses why their video doesn’t look as good as it should. It’s not unconventional; it’s crap.
Westbrook’s original post has drawn a lot of comments. I suspect this one may, as well. We’ve already had a fair bit of discussion about this over at NewsLab. Feel free to weigh in there or here. (No personal attacks, please.)