I have a small group of 4th grade students who produced a video that documented a grade-wide project. Three classes pitched in to design and build a sculpture of the American flag, made of Campbell’s Tomato soup and Starkist tuna cans. The sculpture was beautiful and became a testament to the collaborative energy of the teachers and students. But it was the work of our student video producers that made me proud and nostalgic. They conducted and transcribed interviews, viewed photos, then arranged the media elements in iMovie to determine the best way to tell the story of our Canstruction project, all BEFORE they sat down to write their script. And that’s what struck me. It was old school journalism.
Before I was an elementary school teacher, I was a television journalist. I was a journalist in an era when the news media discovered how technology can speed up the distribution of news. The emphasis of news gathering was on moving news video from field to air as quickly as possible, usually sacrificing the craft of storytelling. During this time, I was an “up and coming” news producer, with responsibilities that impacted local and network news coverage all over the country. One day I was sitting in the NBC Network newsroom, feeling pretty good about myself, when my father called. He was a longtime documentary writer and producer for NBC News who had watched the evolution of broadcast journalism with disdain. The business was more interested on-camera personalities, fronting the stories that rightfully belonged to everyday people. In his day, the heavyweight reporters my father worked with let everyday people tell their stories, only speaking to draw connections to larger, universal themes that in turn, connected these people to television viewers.
He told me that back in the day, he and all film or TV reporters would visit the site of an important story. He would interview those involved, film them and the surrounding area (we called this B-roll, which often included scenes that are incidental to the event). Then he would return to the editing booth, look at the film, take notes on interviews and b-roll, and allow the story to take shape based on all the elements shot, then begin splicing the film cuts in an order that best told the story. He said once he and his film editor recognized the story that was being told through the film cuts, it was at that point, my father would sit down and write a script. That’s how you preserve the voices of the people whose stories are being told. My dad then asked me how the business does it now?
I told him. First, the reporter reads the Associated Press wire story off the computer. Then begins to write the story, leaving gaps in the script for quotations for on camera interviews with people already quoted in the printed wire story. The plan for the interview is to encourage the person on the scene to repeat what he/she told the AP reporter, so that the same words can be used in a video report. In other words, “Earlier you said something about how the ‘storm sounded like a freight train.’ Could you say that again? On camera? (reporter looks back to the photographer and asks, “Are you rolling? Good). Go ahead, sir… freight train.”
When I was done characterizing the process of news reporting in that era, my father asked, “Seriously?” and went on to blast it for being contrived, inauthentic. A process that co-opted the story from those who lived the story in favor of some guy who steps in front of a live camera, straightens his tie, and begins reporting with feigned expertise on a story he’s known for a short while. So as my fourth graders wrap up their video report, my thoughts turn to my dad and I smile because we’re getting it right. Here’s their story…