Video journalism/A Picture's Worth

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MOSUL, Iraq (April 27, 2010) U.S. service members assist Iraqi Special Operations Force soldiers during a video editing training course. The four-day course teaches the fundamentals of capturing, editing, and publishing video products to enhance and develop multi-media and public affairs capabilities. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Roland A. Franklin/Released)

The Video journalism study schedule aims at being a simulation, or a part of real industry based video news or current affairs production. Participants are both student journalist and journalist/directors, coordinated by their lecturer/subject coordinator who is a Chief of Staff or video journalism producer.

In developing your video news story, you should refer to all materials here and find a news topic that focuses your interest and that is suitable to your culture, community and available resources. You may prefer to structure your news topic around an area of interest such as the environment, the arts, or travel journalism, sport, people, education, conflict, or science and technology. There are many examples of these genres online - mostly found on Youtube. This study schedule refers to news channels such as Russia Today, Democracy Now or The Real News.

You’ll need to make a decision here, about whether you’ll ‘write only’ throughout the study period, or whether you’ll also produce the video. The production path will consume more time, where as the 'write only' approach will focus your attention on the issues around the scripting of a news story - the central focus of this study schedule.

Your production process should have a strong awareness and emphasis on journalism accuracy and fairness. There should be a concentration on ethical principles that should surround all production of image and sound. The theoretical component of this course concentrates on the issues of informed consent and representation. These considerations should always underpin your script and production process.

Aims and objectives for this topic[edit | edit source]


On completion of your reading of this topic and references, you should have:

  1. formed an understanding of how this study schedule is structured
  2. decide which study path you’ll take; writing only, or going on to producing video from the writing
  3. be prepared to develop video ideas to a publishable level, into script and/or broadcast product.

At the completion of this topic, you should be able to:

  1. describe the key features and similarities of video news, current affairs and documentary and outline theories and technologies available to the freelance video journalist
  2. briefly outline the formats and structure of each of the forms of video news, current affairs and documentary and
  3. write a description and overview of your intended study-path, to submit to the Chief of Staff Reviewer

A script based process[edit | edit source]

A non-fiction book about comics and sequential art by Scott McCloud (born 1960). Understanding Comics should help you to begin developing an understanding of the language and grammar of sequenced images for story telling

Download the Video News Script Template (editable copy available on Google Docs). Use this template to compose your first draft script.

When writing the script, all visual and sound elements should be described clearly and represented in script. Please keep in mind that all sections must be carefully timed and written into the script.

Experience in writing scripts and editing video will bring about a greater awareness of efficient and higher quality video and sound recording work. Journalists and directors with experience in editing, are usually more efficient in their camera work, because they are able to visualise how their recordings may be used both in scripting and editing. Their pictures will tend to tell the story more in the initial recording, helping the script writer and editor in their work. Some people refer to this skill as the technique of in-camera editing.

If you are focused on script writing only, you need not worry about equipment or video production techniques. Scriptwriters in video news and current affairs are expected to understand how the camera and editing processes work, but their focus is on effective news story telling. They rarely attend to the technical aspects of camera shoots or long and tedious editing sessions. Scriptwriters visualise how the images should be shot. Scriptwriters sequence sound and images; using words to convey what those combinations of image and sound will do in the finished work. They design behind the scenes, and work exclusively in the pre-production and research stages.

In compiling a script you should consider the language and grammar of placing pictures through editing. A pace or rhythm should be applied to your work, even at the script stage. Pace may become evident in reading the script aloud. News pace is established through the application of certain editing and grammatical rules (see the second topic of this schedule The Camera's Eye) and by critically watching high quality video news. For a more in depth reading on the language and grammar of sequential art like scripting and video making, try to obtain a copy and read Scott McCloud's 1993 book Understanding Comics.

If you study this schedule with a certain degree of application and diligence, you will develop a practical tele-visual language for scripting and conceiving video news ideas. Use the Internet to search for additional resources around the words and phrases that have been used here. This should occur alongside a developing knowledge of ethical and theoretical considerations around telling news stories through video.

Assumptions before you start[edit | edit source]

This schedule is designed for and from the perspective of the small camera freelance journalist and the discussion throughout firstly centers on the area of knowledge best described as Image Ethics, and secondly around the second area of video journalism’s technological and cultural revolution.

On ethics

Both approaches to this study schedule (writing only, or writing and video production) are done with acceptance that:

  1. research, writing, camera work, design, re-writing and editing in post production involve journalists and documentarists making numerous on- the-spot, subjective and sometimes intuitive decisions
  2. many of these decisions in film making and television are learnt experientially and expressed in ways that are based in language, commercialism, intuitiveness and aesthetics.
  3. officially, the mainstream television culture would have us believe that image making processes in video journalism is the result of professional and objective decision-making processes
  4. filmmaker and journalist decisions should be underpinned by some prior thinking over film epistemology, standards and ethics for the TV screen, and
  5. video journalism should be informed by analysis of case studies and examples that stimulate effective thinking about the ethical and legal ramifications of their work.

News media raw material is always filtered, gatekept and edited in ways that serve the interests of organizations that seek broadcast and own it. The Internet and web based journalist must come to know that professionalism is bound up in accountable decision-making. On most occasions they will single-handedly have to decide about what is firstly and realistically newsworthy and within budget, and to what limits an ethically thinking professional will go in seeking a market. And in an ethical context, they will have to resist prioritising the film’s commercial possibilities over the privacy of a subject interviewee.

Mobile Reporting - African journalist using a mobile phone as a reporting tool. The content receives some editing on the phone before being uploaded to the Internet via GPRS.
On technology

There are many industrial struggles arising from the technology leap that domestic digital video cameras provide, and there are many alternatives available to video journalists today, from cameras in mobile telephones, web cams, wearable cameras, and so on. Many freelance video journalists now work on their own in the shooting and research stages. They use broadcast quality and highly portable digital video cameras, with an on-board intelligence that allows the operator more freedom to get on with the journalism side of filmmaking. This technological online revolution also applies to editing opportunities and uploading capabilities.

The traditional, heavier and more bulky broadcast cameras and associated equipment demand specialist operators whose job is more concerned with cinematography and exacting camera settings, visual framing and fine sound adjustments. This is not to say that the new sole operating videographer can ignore the critical considerations in recording good pictures and audio. It remains crucial for a special attention to be applied to sound (audio), by using high quality microphones and wearing headphones to monitor the sound as it is being recorded. Pictures with poor sound simply cannot be used unless that sound is removed and replaced with suitable audio.

This schedule takes the view that the sole-operated-camera, as witness, records events and social histories, for international on-selling to news in online print, radio and moving image journalism in high-definition digital TV. The freelance director/journalist therefore, should understand the basics of the technology so that they can make realistic research, pre-production, production and post production decisions and budget projections.

Making wise decisions in regard to the most efficient and most creative way to having the film or news story actually made, is directly related to one’s ability to stay working and stay enthusiastic. The appropriate technology decisions are essential in order to quickly deliver, within budget, with freshness, broadcast quality and production standards as required.

As you start, consider...[edit | edit source]

the 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, an analysis of the news media as business by Noam Chomsky. The title derives from the phrase “the manufacture of consent” that essayist–editor Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) employed in the book Public Opinion (1922).

The video journalism production process mythologises and constructs itself inside an elite culture. Expensively funded professionals, that by nature of the slick promotion of their skill and equipment, helicopters and the like, are supposed to penetrate further in bringing us the truth. Journalism and filmmaking are dressed to sell truth at a higher price and so attract higher advertising rates for the publicity that the journalism stories are packaged to support. Alternatives, such as what can be found online, can subvert this culture.

While all stories conform to a structure along the lines of beginning, middle and end, those of you new to the industry might not yet see the enormous amount of time involved in shooting, logging, scripting, editing and publishing. Achieving broadcast standards in both the style and the technical or production sense, involves careful planning and quality control throughout the whole process. Care should be taken, especially in the early stages of concept and script development. The freelancer cannot afford to make too many unproductive decisions. They can’t afford to film events that amount to nothing. Ruining the salability of footage through bad filming, poor audio and sloppy camera style amounts to economic and eyewitness loss.

Meanwhile, mainstream television news and current affairs programs around the world, present their journalists as the sole hero doing all the work, or at least as the team leader. The reality is that the mainstream television news and current affairs journalist is more actor or front-personality, and the filmmaking is done by the camera and editing people. The news-gathering is often done by researchers and scriptwriters whose independence is tethered to the agendas of the producers and network owners that employ them.

The need for checks and balances, and scrutiny of those in power is greater than ever, but the task is beyond the scope of the media industry which is itself constrained by competing imperatives. The media is now a vast international business increasingly suspected of exercising self-interested political and economic power rather than acting as a disinterested check on the abuse of such power by others.
The news media is increasingly driven by the expectations of entertainment. Even news is now often judged on its entertainment value. Television audience meters measure the responses to individual news items and increase pressure to deliver more of those that rate high and fewer of the unpopular ones.
Newspapers, radio and television have always considered entertainment an important part of their function, but now entertainment values help shape news decisions. It is not just a matter of getting the mix right between news and entertainment, personalities and issues, but inserting the values of entertainment into the news. This leads to saturation coverage of public figures, revealing intimate details of their lives with the moral certainty of an afternoon soap. The saturation coverage is rationalised by the argument that understanding the character of a public figure will aid understanding of his political decisions. The argument may be comforting, but it is often misplaced, masking another way in which entertainment values have swamped public life.
The commercial nature of the news media is a source of both strength and weakness. The strength comes from the independence that profits alone can buy. A news media that is profitable has much greater autonomy , its managers can say no to those who would seek to buy its patronage. Financial success can insulate a news organisation from the demands of politicians, lobbyists, advertisers and merchants. Greed can, however, corrode this autonomy. In the desire for the next dollar, deals may be made and the independent soul of the news organisation sold to the highest - or most opportunistic - bidder. The lure of profit may obscure sight of less tangible Fourth Estate roles if pursuit of the next dollar overwhelms. So the commercial success of much of the media produces an ambiguous burden. The New York Times captured this reality well in its advertising slogan: “From Fourth Estate to Real Estate”. It covered the lot and profits accrued.
Schultz, J., Reviving the Fourth Estate, Democracy, Accountability and the Media, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp 4-5

From news to documentary[edit | edit source]

Documentary involves the director in a similar relationship to the subject, (interviewee, social actor or source) as the relationships that exist in TV news. Although running at around one minute screening time, video news journalists and their teams are working within the culture and technique of film. Unlike journalists, filmmakers consider themselves to be more interested in their work as art, and so are presumed less aware of the ethical considerations that journalists are expected to keep in mind. Filmmakers don’t have unifying codes of ethics that journalist associations hold.

The public sees well publicised ethical breaches made by journalists. But what of filmmakers? Documentary filmmakers are information gatekeepers. Filmmakers employ a test of film-idea-worthiness similar to the methods used to determine news-worthiness in the shorter works of video journalists. Film directors are like journalists, and often claim that documentary has Public Sphere responsibilities and so is done for the public good or interest.

Filmmakers might argue altruistic and filmic motivation while actually concentrating on the film’s commercial potential. Filmmakers and journalists alike are not immune from the shallow aspects of fame and celebrity status rather than question what is important or intrinsically interesting about the person or their story.

In the process of this self driven research and development, to get you thinking about history, about ethics for the camera and for the editor in the context of history, please read the following excerpts from John Pilger's Hidden Agendas. Consider it as background material.

Shortly after he invaded Panama in the valedictory year of 1989, George Bushdeclared a new world order that would provide a post-Cold War peace dividend. Fellow travellers became almost lyrical. Like King Lear, wrote Adrian Hamilton in the Observer, the US seems intent on dividing up the world in a rush of magnanimous gestures ... No one should complain of the effort or question the sincerity of the gestures. In Angola and Ethiopia as much as the Middle East and the Gulf and even Vietnam and Cambodia, Washington seems intent on clearing the stage of the past disputes and ushering in a new order in which it can retire to a carefree life. Moreover, implored Hamilton, sceptics should leave the retired old gent alone and welcome the signs the US no longer wishes to be the policeman of the world, at least with its own troops.
Such a nobel concept ran into promotional difficulties beyond the usual propaganda network, for it was obvious to all that the new order was more violent that the old. The global number of conflicts, reported World Military and Social Expenditures, rose rapidly in 1991 and 1992... War deaths were the highest in 17 years. Most of these deaths occurred when the United States, Britain and their allies attacked Iraq in January 1991. The most reliable estimate is that a quarter of a million people died. - Hidden Agendas, pages 29 and 30
Another 6,000 died when American troops invaded Somalia the following year. During the same period, American arms sales rose by 64 per cent, the greatest increase ever; and the Pentagons war budget increased accordingly. In Britain, by 1994 a revitalised arms industry employed one worker in ten and accounted for 20 per cent of the world market. - New Cold War, pages 37 and 43
No fuss is made about the Middle Easts only genuine nuclear-armed power, whose murderous invasions of a neighbouring country, all of them in violation of a least six UN resolutions and overwhelmingly condemned by the UN General Assembly, have been carried out with impunity. This is Israel, whose terrorism, known as self-defence, is under-written by the United States. In 1982, the Israelis invaded Lebanon and killed some 20,000 people. Isrealis fighter aircraft bombed refugee camps; death squads of Sin Beth, the Israeli secret police, kidnapped and murdered at will. The unstated reason for this barbarism was, wrote Noam Chomsky, to overcome the threat of PLO diplomacy. - Hidden Agendas, pages 29 and 30
In 1996, the Israelis massacred 102 refugees, including women and children, in the United Nations base at Qana in southern Lebanon. The shelling had been aimed at a Hizbollah base near by, they insisted: a claim quickly discredited by UN observers. The press coverage in Britian and the United States was instructive. The headline in The Times was Clinton Leads call for Peace after 97 Die, followed by Attack on Lebanon will go on unless Hizbollah calls cease-fire. The Daily Telegraph juxtaposed a banner headline, Israeli Shells Kill 94 Refugeees with a quote in bold type from Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister: We had no choice but to defend our people and soldiers. Newsweek said the victims had died ‘in the crossfire’. - The Terrorists, page 37
A runner-up for the mantle of the UNs greatest sucess is George Bush's humanitarian intervention in Somalia in 1992, in the midst of his re-election campaign. Here it was generally agreed that the US Marines were finally doing what Bush called God's work ... saving thousands of innocents. This was Operation restore Hope, which, like the asult on Iraq the previous year, had UN legality. The American TV crews were waiting as the Marines landed in a beautiful African pre-dawn: prime time at home. From the Somalian side there was perpetual darkness: chaos and tribalism and warlords. When the American warlords had completed their adventure in Somalia and taken the media home with them, the story died, as they say. The Marines had left 7,000-10,000 people dead. This was not news.
The objective in Somalia was noble, wrote Henry Kissinger in the Guardian. In fact, the moral purpose has motivated every American war this century ... The new approach [in Somalia] claims an extension in the reach of morality... Humanitarian intervention asserts that moral and humane concerns are so much part of American life that not only treasure but lives must be risked to vindicate them; in their absence, American life would have lost some meaning. No other nation has ever put forward such a set of pro-positions. - The Terrorists, page 43
  1. Read: Pilger, J. February 2012. The Assange case means we are all suspects now. ABC The Drum.
  2. Review: Press Freedom Index. Wikipedia
  3. Read article and comments: Violence and Censorship on the Rise in Asia. Reporters Without Boarders, January 2012.
  4. Watch video: Chris Busby: Cyclop child and the cause of congenital anomaly in Iraq. Youtube January 2012.

Theory and reality[edit | edit source]

Plato's Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna

Ethical dilemmas and questions of representation are encountered daily by image makers, especially those working as video journalists or photographers gathering images for news and current affairs. They are the recorders of real peoples’ lives and once in front of the cameras, those people become subjects and un-paid social actors in the stories told by the video journalist.

Video news and current affairs programs take grabs from a vast range of content. Editing makes a range of disparate sources meld together into a seamless and apparently natural and unproblematised final text. video production makes these disparate sources of picture and sound look like they were all shot from the same cameras, that is - our eye, our gaze.

Video journalists need tools for thinking about their work, they need tools for observing, analysing and representing in sound and ethical ways. This is because new realities are actively forcing new perspectives to explain the events of the day. Theory is a such a tool. It serves the news and filmmaking professional as a tool in analysis, as a way to view scenarios and situations. It can assist in making ethical and professional decisions (both journalistic and film related).

Film-making, like video-news-making, involves work that is underpinned by screen theory, film theory, instructional design and processes that are intuitively developed from watching others work. By studying these such theories, we gain insights into our work that will help generate new ideas or new approaches to a wide range of problems.

Bill Nichols' book, 'Representing Reality', discusses 'Axiographics – Ethical Space in Documentary Film'. Subtitled 'Erotics/Ethics', Nichols argues that a social science approach to film cannot adequately deconstruct the complexities of narrative and the psycho dynamics of the camera’s gaze. The dynamics and implications of the cameras ‘window on the world’, says Nichols, is so complex, the subjectivity of its critique so varied that no one theoretical form of analysis will suffice.

Many researchers will claim they have the strongest tool, yet they are more often than not the standard University based content analysis, linguistic analysis, systemics, statistical shot analysis, interviews with audience members, economic studies of the industry, or cognitive psychology. All fall short of any complete or ideal analysis tool for video journalism.

From San Francisco State University, Bill Nichols suggests that the camera’s scopophilic pleasure of sighting an object of desire and the identificatory pleasure of watching an other who serves as model for the self, demand a different form of analysis.

Nichols, B., Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 1991. p. 76.

The journalist uses the camera lens as a scope, peering on the world to provide marketable footage. This footage will convey information and pleasure to the viewer while building desire for further viewings (follow-up stories). The viewer desires, imitates and interacts with that mythical – iconised – serialised – but none-the-less, marketed and packaged reality that is radiated from the screen. This scopophilic pleasure of sighting and the identificatory pleasure of watching are further scrutinised by Laura Mulvey:

Both pursue aims in indifference to the perceptual reality, creating the imagized, eroticised concept of the world that forms the perception of the subject and makes a mockery of empirical objectivity.
Mulvey, L. in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods, vol 2 (Berkely University Press, 1985). p. 308.

Nichols and Mulvey were discussing the eroticisation of the gaze and the gender hierarchy that classic (Hollywood) narrative imposes. Nichols suggests that although there are similarities, the documentary narrative subverts that of Hollywood because documentary and video news and current affairs use social actors – real people and pieces of ‘actuality’ – recordings of events. Inescapably though, influences flow from the powerful narrative of Hollywood to the lesser known genres of documentary and even to news and current affairs. Mix this with the shaping powers of commercial imperatives and there’s a potent brew for shaping issues and perceptions into totally new realities.

We generally accept that journalism and documentary have by definition, an inherent reliability to inform with a natural truthfulness. However, in Representing Reality Nichols provides a new and worrying context:

One way to give further consideration to this shift in problematics from narrative to documentary would be to address the specific qualities of the documentary gaze and its object of desire: the world it brings into sight. What we call axiographics moves to the fore. The neolism stems from axiology, the study of values (ethics, aesthetics, religion and so on), with ‘particular reference to the manner in which they can be known or experienced’ (Webster’s Third International). Axiographics would address the question of how values, particularly an ethics of representation, comes to be known and experienced in relation to space. Instead of the fictional space of narrative and questions of style, we confront the axiographic space of documentary and questions of ethics.
Nichols, B., Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 1991. p. 77.

Where do the values and ethics of the video journalist fit in relation to the world they are capturing? The Simulacra or screen world is a televised and seriously historical reality of which the filmmaker is a tangible part. Mulvey suggests that:

Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world and an object (an event in itself with a life of its own.), there by producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire.
Mulvey, Visual Pleasure, P. 314 in Nichols, B., Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 1991. p. 77.

Cinematic conventions and codes are imported from documentary to video journalism, creating a gaze of the historical world, serving the desire of the viewer on a daily basis, the promise of knowledge and perspective, of argument, angle, spin; cut to ideological and political measure. Nichols writes:

...the presence (and absence) of the filmmaker in the image, in off-screen space, in the acoustic folds of voice-on and voice-off, in titles and graphics constitutes an ethics, and a politics, of considerable importance to the viewer. Axiographics extends those classic topics of ethical debate—the nature of consent; propriety rights to recorded images; the right to know versus the right to privacy; the responsibilities to his or her subject as well as audience, or employer; codes of conduct and the complexities of legal recourse–to include the ethical implications conveyed by the representation of time and space itself.
Nichols, B., Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 1991. p. 77.

Objectivity, subjectivity and bias[edit | edit source]

The 1972 book and BBC Television series Ways of Seeing by John Berger is considered a seminal text for current studies of visual culture and art history. Youtube has copies of the BBC TV series.

Subjectivity increases as a news story develops into a documentary. As news, objectivity is 'naturally' assumed. As current affairs, more word from the journalist appears. The documentary contains the most amount of subjectivity, where the journalist’s point of view is made more obvious.

Journalism at all levels, however, has higher levels of subjectivity than journalists are prepared to admit. Subjectivity is especially high in television, especially where commercial imperatives are playing a role in the process. Journalism, like camera operators and editors, are playing powerful authoring roles, often without the slightest understanding of the ethics critical theories surrounding their work.

In times of pressure, the young or inexperienced journalist will be forced to work rapidly, and so personal beliefs will carry them through such emergencies. This is an ethical minefield. These personal morals are some-how assumed to be commonly held and in keeping with the values held in the professional codes. But this is often not the case, especially when the journalist is operating within a culture that is not their own.

To be accountable and reflexive on ethical issues, filmmakers and journalists must always be calmly deconstructing, and reflecting on their methods. While on the job, journalists must have abilities to consider the potential for bias versus journalistic imperatives. They must interrogate the authority they assume as journalists, as well as the position of the subject in relation to the camera's gaze wielding power over subjects in the story. And all of this while considering their own constructs and biases that they bring to the story.

The audience of video news, current affairs, or documentary, also come with their own complex subjective views, relating to the positions and ideologies of the video they are watching. A shift in perception or the way people read a story and a subject can occur as viewers simultaneously respond in relation to their outside influences. Like news, documentary assumes a naturalness and a non-fiction position, empowered through the viewer’s desire to know the truth. News and documentary rarely encourage an awareness in the viewer that the views given in the film originate from the encounters between social actors and the camera recording their actions, such as the decisions of the camera operator, the journalist, the editor and the Chief of Staff Reviewer.

Bill Nichols explains:

The viewer’s relation to the image, then, is charged with an awareness of the politics and ethics of the gaze. An indexical bond exists between the image and the ethics that produced it. The image provides evidence not only on behalf of an argument but also gives evidence of the politics and ethics of its maker. . . . Axiographics, then, is an attempt to explore the implantation of values in the configuration of space, in the constitution of a gaze, and in the relation of observer to observed.
Nichols, B., Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 1991. p. 79.

The image, or images in the product cannot show all the politics behind its making. The viewer cannot see the actual relationship between journalist/filmmaker and the subject. Especially hidden, is how the subject gives consent to interview or social acting. Were they paid? Coerced? Informed consent given? Discussion amongst all image practitioners on these matters assists in realising the complexities of the relationship.

Quoted by Peter Putnis, Thomas Waugh suggests that:

Traditional consent contracts signed by documentary subjects during filming have usually formalised more than consent. In fact they formalise the subjects’ surrender of their images, the agreement that filmmakers may impose their own voices over the image of their subjects. In the lesbian gay movements, the ethical lessons we have learned about individual freedom, the respect we have developed for the variety of human sexual and cultural expression, have encouraged our filmmakers . . . to seek alternatives to the traditional consent rip-off . . . and seek means by which they might let their subjects speak rather than speak for them, let their subjects control their images rather than control them for them (Waugh, 1988, p.259).

Putnis, P. 1992, Television journalism and image ethics in Australian Journalism Review, Vol 14 (No 2) July–December, 1992. p. 7.

Rare is the director/producer who might let their subjects speak in their own right, rather than the filmmaker / journalist speaking for them. The culture of film and television and their respective educational processes have not encouraged this kind of arrangement. Such an arrangement might suggest a commonly held view amongst journalists and filmmakers: that to lose editorial control is to lose power and accuracy – they feel they lose integrity.

Drama or actuality?[edit | edit source]

Journalists taking pictures and photographs on May 20, 2010, after the army assault in Bangkok at the positions of the Red Shirts.
Documentary and video journalism, in their commonly accepted forms, do not knowingly address fictional concerns, yet many current affairs and documentary works have reconstructions and dramatisations. The assumption being, that what occurred in front of the camera was not entirely enacted with the camera in mind. In other words, the reportage is supposed to fairly represent what happened. It is assumed that the camera remains the casual, the scientific recorder that does not create or contribute to the event. The camera is assumed invisible, the ‘events would have unfolded, the social actors would have lived and made a presentation of themselves in everyday life irrespective of the camera’s presence.
Nichols, B., Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 1991. p. 78.

A constantly reliable way to illustrate this, is through the way Indigenous Australians have been represented in film and the news media. For some years now the mainstream news media have been responding to discourses that criticise the way Aboriginal issues are marginalised. The Age newspaper as long ago as 1981 carried a story which included the following:

Now that Aborigines are becoming more politically powerful, a certain proximity has been forced on white Australians, a cultural and political proximity to a race that hitherto has been kept distant. Political issues such as land-rights, access to medical, housing and legal facilities, writing of history, and so on, have tended to force people into new understandings.
“A Black View of History, Culture.” The Age, 13/2/81.

The news media have only recently begun to discuss more fairly, the century old conflict between the police and Aborigines. The NSW Summary Offences Act in 1987 and the Police culture generally contribute to the rising incarceration rate of young Aborigines. This created an opportunity so that journalist film-maker Jennie Brockie was given support from the ABC to start work on her controversial documentary 'Cop it Sweet'.

Brockie and her crew may have had some plan to expose the racist and brutal culture that comes into play when police officers chose to exercise their ‘discretionary powers’ over Aboriginal youth. In 'Cop it Sweet', it appeared that the documentary camera was invisible and that the damning behaviour of the Redfern (inner Sydney suburb) police patrol was oblivious to the fact that it was being filmed. In Television Journalism and Image Ethics, Peter Putnis wrote about the film:

The filmmakers are as unobtrusive as possible; we are offered what seems to be direct observation of their (police) activities. The film was obviously made with the cooperation of the NSW police force... We saw an officer who initially projected himself as a ‘good guy’ who was very conscious of police power and claimed he would not abuse it, proceed to arrest an Aboriginal person on a trivial charge of swearing... The highlight of the program was the juxtaposition of scenes of a policeman swearing at Aborigines with scenes of an Aborigine being locked up for similar behaviour. The hypocrisy was evident to all.
Putnis, P. 1992, Television journalism and image ethics in Australian Journalism Review, Vol 14 (No 2) July -December, 1992. p. 8

While the film, 'Cop it Sweet', at the time was undoubtedly a professional and intriguing social documentation with significant social value, Peter Putnis poses a number of critical questions. Why would the police on a daily basis, regularly sign their consent? The only answer for their part is that they were consenting to and visualising a different film. Where did they go wrong? The simple answer, for Peter Putnis, is: "that they went wrong in their actual behaviour, but one suspects that there was also some naivete about the documentary film-making process and, perhaps, about the intentions of the documentary maker."

Perhaps the police envisaged a film about community policing and the on-the-street struggles that the police endure with wild and street-wise youth. Naturally, they consent favourably and willingly when they imagine that the journalist/filmmaker’s vision of how they’re to be represented is clearly and honestly aligned with theirs.

The approach demands sensitivity when the representation is not of a powerful group like the NSW police, but of indigenous and marginalised people. The perspective on who is victim and who is oppressor can shift with a shift in perspective, so that the victim might be the Redfern Police Patrol.

The third person plural is both objective (accusative) and beneficiary: you do things to them, and do things for them . . . you might be vigilant over them and you are never under them in any metaphoric displacement of your position.

[Methodological] relativism confines itself to the empirical cataloguing of differences. The weakness of the relativist approaches lies in their emphasis on description, without recognising that description necessarily involves comparison, and failing to theorise the social and historical grounds upon which observation, description and comparison can be carried out (1993, p. 300).
Muecke, Stephen. Les Discours sur les Aborigines. Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociale, Paris. Paper. January 1982. p. 2.

Stephen Muecke’s text, however, was written about the position of the Australian Aborigines as being the powerless. The white newcomers being they who ‘do things to them, and do things for them... you might be vigilant over them and you are never under them in any metaphoric displacement of your position’.

Informed consent[edit | edit source]

Unlike news and network current affairs programming, freelance journalists making programmes for broadcast and profit, are ethically and legally bound to obtain consent-by-signature on a deed-like form (a contract). Many practitioners, including students, feel this process compromises the relationship between the journalist interviewer and the subject/interviewee. While this may be the case, producers cannot afford to continue without consent given in writing, legally weak as it may be.

The embarrassing repercussions of both legalities and diplomacy in the consent form are never fully realised until a journalist experiences the moment when they must ask the subject to sign away their image and voice to an unknown and yet to be constructed film. Consent, knowledge, understanding and power oscillate and interplay between journalist/filmmaker, the camera and subject.

Howard S Becker suggests the dilemmas:

I cannot give consent unless I am truly informed, and... being truly informed requires that I know at least as much about the process of making photographs and films (or doing research) as the people doing the work. Otherwise, I may think that I am protecting myself (or that there is nothing to protect myself against) when these people actually have tricks up their sleeves I can’t even begin to imagine. Image makers can use selective editing, framing, lighting and the rest of the familiar catalogue to produce a result in whose making I wouldn’t have cooperated had I known what was coming. (Becker, 1988, p. 13)
Becker, H.S. 1988, Forward: Images, ethics and organisations in Gross, Katz and Ruby (1988).]

Again, quoting Becker:

Filmmakers cannot be expected to know exactly how they will use material at the time that it is gathered; if this is the case, consent (unless it is consent to the final product) is less than fully informed. Furthermore, it could be argued that there are situations where telling subjects less than the whole truth can be justified in the interests of some higher moral or news purpose.
(Putnis, 1992, p.8)
  • Release - This release assists in obtaining informed consent for filmed material like interviews. It will also serve as a release for copyright material, like photographs, music, audio, video and art-works.

The coda[edit | edit source]

In both current affairs and documentary video journalism, conflict is built for cinematic interests and the sorts of conflict that are built are rarely serving the public interest. They more often serve advertising, or aesthetic agendas (which may be in public interest culturally) or they may serve commercial interests. Documentary, current affairs and video news, certainly, address an 'histiographic' space.

The natural assumption asked of viewers is that the event would have happened, the ethnographic moment would have existed while the subjects, the social actors would have lived and made a presentation of themselves in everyday life irrespective of the camera’s presence. The subject and their story legitimate and qualify, making acceptable to the viewer, the film’s premise or argument. While editing changes the nature of the raw unedited reality, documentary still relies on the power, naturalness and honesty purported in its form through the subject. That is why oral historians and ethnographers prefer the unedited form, the subject and their story most clearly visible in this state.

In Nichols’ work there is a suggestion of explanation and a signpost for further research and discussion:

For scientists, what is called ‘mere film’ or raw footage can be of great value. Unedited, not organised into any more elaborate form of textual system, it still bears significant information about the world...
Nichols. p. 78.
The question posed to the spectator (viewer ), then, is not what kind of imaginary world the filmmaker has created but how the filmmaker acquitted him-or herself in relation to those segments of the historical world that have become the scene of the film. Where does the filmmaker stand? What space does he or she occupy and what politics or ethics attach themselves to it?
Nichols. p. 79.

For video journalism there is little time for reflecting and answering the questions posed in Nichols’ quote above. The paradox being, that to reflect or to even start to be reflexive requires a thorough study of film and journalism theory. This inevitably pulls learning away from the practical into the realm of theory. In journalism, the two must be heard, and yet to achieve that in a single course is difficult and time consuming.

Perhaps all that might be achieved through this study schedule, is to build some sort of value for these issues in video journalism. We might then hope that enough of those values are taken into the workplace, gradually absorbed into the culture, helping to generate a more sophisticated, sensitive and higher quality form of news story telling.

Making a start[edit | edit source]

You should be reading this topic at the beginning of the study schedule, and your first assignment is to:

/Identify a news story - Identify a news story to develop into a current affairs story and onwards to a documentary. Provide a brief synopsis of your intentions and aspirations with this study schedule.

The content in this topic should inform all your decision making in all your assignments however, so keep referring back, and looking out for more information on the key words and concepts that have been introduced here.