What does referencing video really mean?

If I had a dollar for every shot of generic video in a story, I would be rich, on the beach living the high life! It’s so common, it’s almost become accepted in the industry. And that’s a big mistake because generic video does nothing to help viewers trust that you know what you are talking about. It’s true. They can tell that you just slapped up some pictures hoping they would not really look. And nowadays, it’s just another reason to shake their head, grumble about fake news and look at social media instead.  Recently, CBS Evening News ran a correspondent story about air traffic controllers in New York who overheard a possibly terror threat on their frequencies. During the story about the New York-based controllers, there was a shot from inside an ATC tower looking out at what appeared to be Las Vegas, complete with its larger than life hotels and even mountains in the distance. This is the kind of thing that at worst confuses viewers and makes them question credibility and at best makes them wonder if a given news organization is “really that lazy.”

So how do you reference video, especially when you have no choice but to use generic shots? First, let’s define generic video. Generic video are images that are peripherally, but not always specifically, related to a story. Sometimes, generic video sticks out and seems to make little or no sense with the story. It’s video for video’s sake. And it’s a major danger zone.  That is especially true if you ask editors to “Just pad out the shots” to make sure the video doesn’t run out, or “just find me pics of people eating at a restaurant.” “Just show me avocados.” “I need video of a beach.” I have seen stations have advertising pulled over showing restaurant pics, that the chain viewed as identifiable during a food recall story. Same with images of produce. Is there a from Chile, or from Mexico sticker? These kinds of details have the potential to be hugely important. Even something as innocuous as pictures of a beach can create a fact error. Beaches in Hawaii do not  look the same as the ones in Florida or Maine and viewers DO notice. In other words, there is no such thing as generic video. Every image has a fact in it. Remember that.

So, let’s add this to the definition of generic video: It is images you are not mentioning in any way while the story is being read aloud. This is an important distinction because it gets to the core of this article: referencing video. You need to have the copy and video make sense together. Now, I did not say “match.” It’s just not realistic to pre-record every story that airs and sometimes the video is slightly ahead or behind the copy as it’s read. That’s not great, but better if the video is actually referenced in the telling of the story. 

A recent example I saw was a story of a man who worked at a religious day care center who was accused of molesting children there. The story showed the mug shot of the man, the sign of the place where he worked, a building (I assume is the same place??) and shots of an infant swing. Not great images to work with, right?  But with subtle writing references you can make it work, and not be generic and therefore confusing. Here’s how that can be done: “(mug shot) Name was arrested today, on child molestation charges. He worked at (show sign and say name of) daycare. (images of building and swing) You might recognize this building on and playground on (           ) street in (city). Police did not say what ages the children were in this case, but infants up to age 8 attend this daycare. (on camera) (name) faces 5 counts tonight. We will let you know what happens next in this case.”

I once had a news director require that we shot sheet every story in every newscast. The first couple of weeks I seriously thought my newscast would not make air. It took forever! But eventually I got the routine down and could still write quickly. With desktop editing so prevalent now, there is really little excuse to not write to video. This does not mean you have to shot sheet and reference every single image. I get that. But you can make sure that you at least reference the first shot seen, and if you add any file video, mention that it is past video, from whatever the source and/or time.

Also, as you are starting to teach yourself to write to video use these references:

 “As you see here”

 “you can see”

 “this is (_____)”

“here’s a good look at (_____)”

“take a look at (_____).”

These references can get cliche after a while, so you do not want to use them all the time everyday every story. But use them for a couple of weeks as you retrain your brain to think of images as you write your stories. They really help. As you get the hang of it, it’s easy to drop these catch phrases. 

Referencing video does not always mean that you have to overtly say what’s on the screen. Sometimes it’s just making sure that what the copy says plays off of the images. So referencing video is, truly, not as hard as it seems. Hopefully this article makes it easier for you, so you can start to reference more images in your stories. You want your newscasts and stories to stand out. You are writing for the ear, but also for the eye. Never forget that. Video needs to be part of the context of the story not a distractor.

Image by Josep Monter Martinez from Pixabay.


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.