Could you turn a story without any track?

No this article is not for photojournalists.  They don’t need it.  They can turn a story without any reporter or anchor track.  This question I pose is for two other groups in the newsroom:  Producers and, to some extent, reporters.  I am guessing most of you reading this are saying, “Probably, but why would I?” Because in truth, most TV journalists cannot do it and end up with a piece that makes any sense at all.

Why does this matter?  Why should you have the skills to be able to produce a story without any track?  There are several reasons:

  • Sometimes you must “see it” to get the context
  • Great content often needs no words
  • Video is the essence of TV news

When I was producing in a large market, my ND issued a really intense mandate to all producers:  No writing vo’s, vo/sots, anchor packages or teases without first looking at and time coding the video.  Now this was really a lot to ask, because we didn’t have desktop editing yet.  You had to pull feed video or raw video, find an open edit bay and sit and log a videotape!  It took a lot of time, AT FIRST.  But soon, I started to see why this was required.  Stories I had planned to air in my newscast were not always as they seemed.  Written descriptions of the video, sent from other affiliates, were often off the mark.  The video told a different story than the words.  My field crew, or a reporter on the feed, missed an awesome opportunity with a sound bite or section of video.  Soon I noticed a big change.  When I sat down to write,  I was fast and very efficient.  The number of errors both I and my AP wrote went way down.  My copy editors loved me.  I didn’t assume as much about stories and actually saw the realities.

I also learned another amazing lesson.  Great content often needs few words.  I could play out sections of great nats and watch people in the newsroom suddenly stop and stare.  I learned to use silence as natural sound occasionally.  (For more on that technique see “Storytelling on a dime”, and “Can you picture it.”)    Sometimes I ran a long bite instead of writing a vo/sot.  Let the people involved give the context.  I just set up the situation, and explained what would come next in the tag.  No, this technique won’t work on every story.  But if you don’t learn how to tell a story without track, you will never truly tell a great story for television.

The reason why is simple:  Video is the essence of TV news.  You cannot showcase the power of video without first seeing that video.  Having a photographer or a reporter describe it is not good enough.  With desk top editing there is no excuse.  Call up the video, sit back and watch.  Let the images move you.  Let the video sequences form in your head.  Let the images bring questions to your mind.  The answers are your powerful elements.  The answers are often in sound bites and single images.  Remember “a picture tells a thousand words.”

So how as a producer do you write stories without using any track?  Next time you are asked to write an anchor package, try and outline it without a single sentence of copy.  Just write down the images and sound bites.  Chances are you will end up with little to no track.  The example above, where you let the sound bite breathe and tell the story instead of having an anchor talk over generic video, can be effective as well.  Let’s take a story from a protest for an example. The anchor can introduce the piece saying where the event was held and how many people showed up.  “What was their message?  We’re letting them tell you.” Then let some sound play.  Let a few people talk.   If there’s another viewpoint, or a counter protest tag with:  “And now, the other side.” and then let that sound play out.  Never forget we need to be informed witnesses for our viewers.  There is no agenda in this type of coverage.  The viewer makes his/her own judgment.  You can always tag out with some factoids to help the viewer see the whole picture.

As for reporters, too often nowadays the emphasis becomes the reporter track, not the video.  How often do you pre-write your package before you even get on scene to shoot the video?  How often do you hear the 1 sound bite you think you need then signal the photojournalist to turn off the camera and walk away?  Yes, you have intense timing constraints.  Many of you are backpack journalist or get to have a photographer only because you churn two or three packages a day.  I get it.  Instead of pre-writing sections of your pieces, jot down notes like you would for a live shot.  Then go and really listen to the person you interview.  Be discerning.  Are you really getting the point of what is going on or just assuming the situation is a certain way?  You don’t know if you don’t listen.  Then write a log of the video and sound you have, in the order you want it, before turning those bullet points in your notebook into copy.  At the very least you will write more effectively to your video.  I bet you will surprise yourself and see that you need less track and find more chances to let your sound breathe.  Finally, once in a while, take a story you did and try to redo with just the video and sound.  Do not write any reporter track.  Attempt a photo essay in your spare time as a way to hone your skills (see “Humble pie” for more ways to help yourself grow).  You will become a better storyteller and a more informed witness for the viewer because of it.