Why generic video is a killer for TV news.

Yes, the title of this article is a strong statement. TV news is up against some large hurdles, the largest being making sure your newscasts and stories actually have impact for the viewer.  If they don’t, viewers leave.  Generic video creates an instant disconnect.  That’s why I defined it and talked about ways around in Show it, explain it, and that’s why I am dedicating a second article.  It is important to understand that this common crutch really kills credibility.

If viewers watch a story, and the video doesn’t make sense with the words two things happen:  The viewer gets confused and misses half of the story, and the viewer starts wondering if the person reading the story knows what he/she is even talking about.  Think about it, would you do a presentation for a group of people and not use the correct power point diagrams?  Would you notice if the graphics don’t make sense and become angry that the speaker keeps flashing them up anyway, just so there is something on a screen?  This is how generic video comes off to TV news viewers.  It is confusing, and frustrating.

Viewers want to grasp what you are saying and showing to them.  Video and sound help imprint it in their busy minds, so they actually remember what was said, who said it and what it meant.  That is too powerful a tool, to just write a story, and hope the video makes sense.  You must know what your images are, and relate the facts to the video.  Otherwise you are telling viewers to go elsewhere, because your station is clueless.

So if you want to stand out on the job, and as a journalist period, show video, use sound, and explain it.  Vow to never put a piece of video into your package or your newscast that you don’t reference in some way.  It’s time to say goodbye to generic video.


Show it, explain it. How to give generic video meaning.

With so many resources to acquire and watch video nowadays, I am shocked at the amount of generic video on television news programs.  Recently, I asked journos to define what generic video is.  The answers were interesting and included:  “stock footage”, “any file video”, and “any video that was not referenced.”  So, let’s begin by defining generic video.  Generic video is video that is shown but not referenced.  Stock footage often fits the bill.  Take, for example, holiday stories about shopping.  You see the same shots of headless people carrying bags in a random mall each time a shopping story is mentioned.  Stories about beach conditions get the same treatment.  You see the same shots of the same beach and same women in bikinis.  Many editors have this video ready to call up at a moment’s notice. It includes:  people getting vaccinations, standing in line to vote, various food items, houses for real estate stories and millage rate stories, and school video of headless students in hallways. Catch my drift?

Generic video doesn’t have to be stock footage though.  I recently watched a vo about a shooting at a house.  In the video, there were tight shots of a window, shots of two different houses next to each other, and then suddenly a shot of an older woman in a hat walking with a younger person.  What did this mean?  Who was the woman?  Who was the younger person?  I’m still not sure which house the shooting happened in!  The video was shot that day, but it didn’t help tell the story in any way.

Now let’s talk about file video.  It is only generic if you don’t explain why you are showing it.  If you are talking about an anniversary of the disappearance of a woman for example, you can say, “you may remember this is the last place where so and so was seen.  Family and friends held up these signs for weeks at busy intersections neardy hoping to find her.”  The file video is not generic.  It has to do with how the writer references the images.  You have to explain why you are showing the video.

In “Can You Picture It” I spell out ways to talk about video and give it meaning.  Recently, I was talking with a producer about this issue and he said, “You get around generic video with see it say it, right?”  No.  “See it say it” is another trap.  The only time you use that rule, is when you are listing a specific phone number, or an address and times for a specific event.  (Think weekend calendars, and crime lines.)  Make sure the phone number or address you are referencing is on the screen, so people can actually take down the information.  Otherwise, think “show it, explain it” rather than “see it say it.”  Think about it, when you watch an entertainment show with a narrator, the narrator does not simply list off every image and throw in a fact here and there.  The narrator tells a story, and the video helps you follow along.  TV writing should do the same.  The anchor or reporter is telling a story, the pictures help you follow along.  You have to reference the video, but that is not the same as “take a look at this, these people are shopping.”  You can reference something like, “we saw plenty of people carrying shopping bags at stores today, that’s good news for retailers and our economy.”  That makes the viewer look at the video to see who is carrying bags and who isn’t.  You are adding a dimension to the video to give it meaning.  This is very crucial when using stock video.  If you are showing someone getting a shot, give perspective.  “If you are getting a flu shot like these people, ask about whether it is the intradermal vaccine.  New research shows it is less effective than the larger needle.”  You can show a person getting a flu shot, a close up of a needle, and it doesn’t feel generic.  Make sure you throw in references that provide perspective here and there.  If you show a shooting scene, where there is police tape and a street sign and no cars, throw in some loose references.  “Police blocked off this area, along Colonial Drive at the intersection of Smith Avenue.  But you can expect a busier scene in a few hours when the road reopens to traffic.”  Is the video exciting? No.  It takes only a few words, to show the viewer why you are bothering with the images.  Showing the taped off area, the road sign and the empty street helps viewers understand where this happened, and how it impacted the area during the investigation. It’s a simple but effective technique.

When you use show it, explain it you are forced to really understand the story you are talking about.  You have to know where the shooting happened, why an older lady was walking down the street, which house the shooting happened in, and whether shoppers were carrying packages or empty handed.  Bottom line, video doesn’t have to be action packed to have meaning.  Reference it.  Let viewers understand why you are bothering to show images at all.


Want a great writing critique? Ask a photojournalist.

Yes, you read the title of this article correctly.  If you want a really great writing critique, ask the guys and gals who focus on the images.  Why?  Because, in television news, the words are dependent on the images.  The video and sound should truly tell the story.  This is even true when using graphics to explain a subject.  The visuals, combined with sound and words, are what makes this medium such an incredible pull for viewers. (despite the smaller screen you are using to read this article.)

Photojournalists really understand the powerful connection between the images and the words.  They also know a lot of tricks to help you work around it when the stories are not as visually appealing as you would like.  If you ever get a chance, sit down and watch a newscast with a photojournalist.  It is fascinating to hear their rants vs. the rants of non-photogs in the business.  Will you agree with everything?  Probably not.  But you will gain a lot of insight from the thought processes of a very visual mind.

So while you listen to the critique, keep an ear out for how many times the photojournalist mentions that a story did not make sense.  My guess is you will hear that pretty often.  Then take a closer look at the story.  Chances are your copy and the visuals do not mesh at all.  It really is fascinating to watch how often that happens in TV news.  There is a large disconnect, especially in vo’s and vosots between the visuals and the words being used to describe the story.

Photojournalists help you understand just that.  Your words describe the story.  They don’t simply tell it.  There is a difference in TV news.  Let a photog help you see that for yourself.  Get a critique.  Who knows, the insight could make your writing style even better.



Why photojournalists should put together photo essays even if your station doesn’t often air them.

Okay, I can hear you talking to your computer screens now, calling this idea (and me) crazy.  Photojournalists hoof it all day, bust their butts, are exhausted at the end of it and don’t need more work with no reward.  Hear me out though.  This is meant to help you keep perspective.

Perspective on what?  Why you hoof it all day, bust your butt and work yourself to the bone.  There is an art to your craft.  Artists need time to just create.  I am not saying turn a piece every week or month.  But when a story really gnaws at you and you shot the heck out of it and only a small part of your great video was used, save the video and turn a photo essay.  Even if you will probably get a “No” answer, give it to an EP and ask where it could air.  Put the piece on YouTube.   Show it to your spouse or your favorite reporter.  Send a link to the photojournalist that inspired you to become one yourself.  Post a link on the  SurviveTVNewsJobs Facebook page.  Experiment and take ownership in having a piece that is just yours.

Too often nowadays TV news is a grind.  You churn and burn and it feels hollow.  You end your day wondering, “Did I make a difference at all?”  Great pieces can and do come along that keep the fire alive, but sometimes you get in a rut.  This is a way to keep you focused.  It is a way to remind you, and the reporters you work with, that TV is worthless without your video and audio.  It helps you push yourself to improve your storytelling.  It can also lead to other opportunities.  I know a great photographer with many Emmys who was able to prove he could also write and associate produce, in part, by putting together well thought out photo essay pieces.  It also feeds the artist in you.  We fellow TV journalists need to see your perspective in this way sometimes.  It helps us remember the true power of this medium too.  So please, turn an occasional photo essay, for all of us.