the kdmcinfo weblog

Telling Stories in Different Mediums (and answering other questions about journalism)

I was contacted recently by a woman from University of the West of Scotland who was doing an assessment on the role of journalists in multimedia newsrooms. She wanted to get an educator's perspective and sent me the five following questions. I thought my responses might have broader interest, so I decided to use them in this week's blog post; enjoy!

Question 1) I recognise the fundamental principles of journalistic practice of accuracy and truth, what further principles are required for journalists to aspire?

Accuracy and truth are still hallmarks of journalism, even in the digital age. The publications we deal with continue to seek these fundamental qualities in the employees they hire. 

The reality of today's digital marketplace is that journalistic content is often lost among the cacophony of content on the web. It is crucial more than ever for journalists to also be versed in how to market themselves and their work. Even the best journalistic work becomes pointless if no one sees it. We believe this requires journalists to both understand and engage their audience, and in many cases to communicate directly with them. There is a need for a higher level of transparency that did not traditionally exist in newsrooms before.

We also believe that the craft of storytelling changes based on the medium in which it is told. This has always been true. A radio story is structured differently than a newspaper story— than a magazine story— than a television story. In much the same respect, we see the Internet as a medium for storytelling rather than simply a distribution mechanism. People consume content on the web differently than most traditional formats, and journalists need to learn techniques for crafting stories to fit the medium in which they are told.

Question 2) In addition, following the innovations of the internet and the merging of broadcast, online media and print, do you feel that journalists roles have changed at all and if so, in what ways?

It really depends on the news organization.

Many news organizations straddle their efforts between producing a website as well as maintaining their traditional distribution outlet. 

Many journalists at these organizations are being given additional workload. They are asked to repackage existing stories for online, or in some cases supplement an existing story with multimedia (photo, video, etc.) From what we've learned anecdotally, some of the journalists at these organizations feel overworked and pessimistic toward feeding two outlets. In this sense, their roles haven't so much as changed, as they have simply been supplemented with additional work.

However, we are also seeing a remarkable emergence of startup online-only news organizations that are not confined by a traditional distribution method. In this case, the role of the journalist is being transformed, particularly in respect to the convergence of content-types — or as you put it, the "merging" of video, online and print. These journalists are often choosing to tell stories in a specific type of content, on a per-story basis, rather than producing one story and repackaging it in multiple formats.

At our school, we train our students on how to shoot video, record audio, take photos and write a story, but not at the same time. Students are taught to understand each medium's strengths and weaknesses, and choose which to use based on the story. We believe it's the story that should dictate the medium in which it will be told — not a publication's format. Some stories are best told with video, while other stories require the careful analysis of the written word. We go through a process of teaching students to think critically about how a story is conveyed, and the mechanisms audiences use to consume those stories.

In this sense, the role of the journalist has evolved. It is not only to tell accurate stories in a single medium, but learning a craft that involves choosing how to communicate in an effective and interesting way in a digital medium. 

Question 3) Also, do you think that having a journalist increasingly work in different areas of journalism is a positive thing or that they should be strict dividing lines when it comes to defining types of journalism?

At most newsrooms, we think journalists will continue to have specialties. Few, if any, of our grads can attest to be experts in every medium. So while they tend to specialize in one area (writing, photography, video or radio) they all undergo training in all methods of storytelling. We don't require students to declare tracks or conform to any specific area of study. A single student can take classes in radio, TV, photography or long-form writing; and most students take advantage of this.

I personally think this type of interdisciplinary approach is a positive thing. It empowers each individual journalist to fully understand and respect every aspect of telling a story, and allows them to have a more holistic approach to storytelling in general. 

I come from a newspaper background, and have personally witnessed the division between photographers, writers and graphic artists — all approaching a story with different intentions, concern only with their own world.

Question 4) One of my lectures, feels that there is an element of 'de-skilling' when journalists are required to work in multiple mediums, what are your views on this?

From what we currently see happening in many traditional newsrooms, this could be true. Staffing has been reduced due to economic pressures, and many journalists are being expected to produce more content with less time. Undoubtedly, the quality of content will suffer. As existing news organizations struggle to transition to online content delivery, they are asked to continue to support a traditional medium. 

For example: at a newspaper that still has a physical print publication, reporters will have to write a print story for the paper in addition to taking a photo or shooting a video for the website. A television reporter may have to write a piece of copy — in addition to producing a video news report for the evening news. A radio news reporter will also have to write a text story for the website, to supplement their broadcast radio report. 

I suppose there could be an element of 'de-skilling' when reporters are asked to do redundant reports in different mediums — particularly when one of those mediums is outside the traditional understanding and training of his or her expertise. It's a difficult predicament without a clear solution.

However, in general I do not believe having a journalists work in different mediums always results in a less skillful craft of each individual medium. In fact, I've had a television producer tell me that some of their best work resulted in having the expertise of an investigative newspaper reporter produce a news segment for their network. I had a student with a radio background create a phenomenal photo essay on Colombian land mine victims that was both visually stunning and accompanied by compelling audio narration. 

Some of the best work I've ever seen is produced by this interdisciplinary approach to journalism; when reporters are left unrestricted by any single medium, and allowed to cross traditional barriers of news types to tell a story the way it wants to be told.

Question 5) In addition, if you have any futher points or views that you would like to share then please feel free to explain.

In a lot of the training we do, we begin with a slide of a very Darwinian quote: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change."