We recently had a workshop on documentary production ran by Sophie Chalk on behalf of One World Media. The organisation is a charitable trust that believes the media can be a powerful tool to increase global dialogue and understanding and can play a role in tackling issues like poverty, hunger, climate change and conflict resolution. This post will give an overview of what was a very practical and helpful workshop. A LOT was covered!
The role of journalistic documentary within the news environment
Most news is there because it is negative, whether it is because of a scandal, a natural disaster, a war or conflict. It is not usually deemed news worthy when something has gone right or to plan!
Documentary therefore has a role to tell the other stories, those that don’t make the news. They can be the stories behind the news though, perhaps examining an issue or topic by using a central character to highlight a human aspect like this one by Olly Lambert:
Sophie showed a number of clips from documentary and news output throughout the day to illustrate different styles and era’s of reporting from the developing world to examine representation and approach.
The following news piece from the BBC’s Michael Buerk in 1984 shows some of the earliest reporting coming out of a developing country and how it was treated. The extended report is very graphic and disturbing and conjures a variety of responses.
It raises questions of how to cover famine, poverty and natural disasters. If someone dies should that be shown on TV? It also raises the issue of editing and potential mistreatment of shots (for example in this video there is a shot of people running and the voice over links this to them running for food aid. It could be questioned as to whether this was just a shot of people running for something else). This type of question comes up more and more with the amount of media on social media sites now. Verification is a huge task for media professionals to undertake and misrepresentation must be avoided.
Live Aid Legacy
The report also seems quite de-humanising, but then a disaster of nature on that scale is de-humanising, so is this ok? The only voice in this piece is from a white doctor. This report led on to the Live Aid concerts and a huge campaign for aid. Since it has been criticised widely and VSO’s 2001 research report ‘The Live Aid Legacy: The developing world through British eyes’ shows how it made the British public associate negative thoughts and images with the developing world, and more specifically Africa, long afterwards.
Even long after this media report, other images and videos like this de-censitised audiences and helped strong stereotypes to grow about the developing world. In addition the sense of white superiority and the inferiority of the developing world was found to come out of this type of coverage. Not only has it been criticised in the west but also by Ethiopians and other African nations.
Now the way the media covers developing countries is quite different and broadcasters have guidelines on how to represent people and how to deal with victims and vulnerable people. One of these guidelines it that naked children cannot be shown, even if they are naked for a cultural reason.
Most charities and NGOs no longer want to represent people as victims who need the ‘west’ to sort out their problems. Now they like to show how people are helping themselves out of problems and poverty.
However, it is hard to avoid the fact that a victim is a victim. This last year has proven a challenging one in regards to covering the Horn of Africa drought and Somalia in particular. I think this video from Save the Children however, was a really different and fresh take on film footage at the time and was incredibly successful in terms of viewer numbers.
It’s all in the first minute
A lot of people have stopped watching the news because it is depressing. However, they do watch documentaries and the first minute is crucial for keeping a viewer. If it is hard hitting, it might provoke guilt, make the viewer compare the situation with their own and then often this guilt turns to anger, then they will turn over to something light hearted where they will not feel depressed and angry. So when thinking about your documentary you need to think about the time of day you expect someone to watch it and their potential mood. Would I watch it? Is it depressing? I thought this part was interesting because as much as we want to think people will be interested in ‘serious/important’ matters – often people turn on the TV to relax and switch off and so therefore might not want to watch a ‘heavy’ documentary.
We were advised that if, in the midst of a disaster, you can find characters to show a sense of humour, or a sense of hope then you can humanise these negative, tragic stories. This is one technique to illustrate and cover such topics.
Tips/things to remember
- The security of your contributor is of huge importance and could impact their future safety
- The internet complicates things and makes journalists much more accountable for the way they represent people/areas
- Don’t be judgemental – go in with an open mind and get the best out of a person you can (don’t always have such a rigid plan what you want them to say, or think they might say that you miss something important)
- When focusing in on an individual ‘character’ to tell a story you must relate that to a wider situation/issue
- Never assume your audience understands the context of your story
- Keep asking why would my audience care?
- When taking a camera into a situation you will draw in crowds – think of the implications to those around (will you be putting someone at risk?)
- Embassies (for filming permits/visas)
- Other journalists
- Researchers and other film makers
- UK Army
- Diaspora community
- Call sheets (contacts and schedule with full details)
- Have a plan B
- Risk assessment – inc. seeing photos of rooms you might interview in to plan and visualise your environment
- Letters of introduction
- Flights and baggage
- Foreign office
We used Final Cut Pro to edit our Eden feature as luckily I have it on my personal computer. I also wanted to practice on it as I’ve only edited once before on it for my Argentina glacier video. It’s used by lots of professionals so I want to become competent at using it.
This gives you an insight into what it looks like!
Assessment time has crept up very quickly this term! The Professional Practice module has comprised a number of subjects:
The assessments have been set to reflect this range of subjects and aside from our final documentary pitch, final piece and written contextual analysis they form the last set of assessments on the MA! Eeeek!
So here is the brief:
Practical portfolio (80%)
- A radio news bulletin (produced, edited, scripted and presented live) – 20%
- A television news bulletin (produced, edited, scripted and presented live) – 20%
- An online news story (written and uploaded to UCFJourno) – 10%
- Print Assessment – 25% – this consists of two exams on news writing and sub-editing and one 1,200 word international news feature
- A 4 1/2 minute political radio package based on one of the following topics – 25%
1. Political Restraints versus Press Freedom
2. The Role of Worldwide Governmental Bodies
3. The Role of Non Governmental Organisations
4. Religious Tolerance and Intolerance
Personal blog (20%)
A series of blog posts that reflect on and critically evaluate the radio package production process – 100%
So now we know what a feature is and what it must include. This post will explore the structure of how to write a feature.
Unlike a news story a feature has a clear beginning, middle and end. This is broken up as follows:
The first paragraph is very important. Imagine you have ten seconds to grab your reader’s attention. Here are some handy devices to consider using:
- A strong provocative statement
- An anecdote (story) to illuminate the theme of the feature
- Scene setting (description) – ‘Imagine you’re…’
- Historical background (not boring though!)
- Striking contrasts – can inject urgency and special interest, although be careful about overusing the maybe/but formula
- A question – that focuses the reader (although this can be considered lazy so don’t overuse) Also if you start with a question do not end your feature also on a question
- A striking quote
- Never start with the ‘when’
Aside from these it is important to remember that in feature writing you can BREAK THE RULES! Sometimes it really works to do this.
If the above don’t help you and you are more of a broadcast journalist who thinks in images then try thinking cinematically:
- Start with a close-up and then pan out to widescreen
- Or do reverse…start with a wide-shot and then close in
- Start at the end or the middle
Main body of copy
After hooking your reader in with the introduction you need a ‘nub par’ – nub = crux of and par = paragraph. So this is a paragraph that tells the reader what the piece is actually about. The relevance of writing the feature. This must be in the first five to six paragraphs of the feature.
Generally a paragraph should be about 50 words.
Key points to remember:
- Stick to your brief and what is relevant to that (not nice to know but need to know)
- Keep checking you are following a line of argument for your angle
- Maintain balance although you can also be subjective by having more of a focus on one side
- Don’t use too many quotes and only use those critical to your angle
- Don’t write in the first person
- Turn yourself into the reader and keep going back to the beginning and reading through
- Think about the tone you want to adopt
- Vary your sentence type (long, short)
- Think interesting, lively and accessible
- Try to introduce a new nugget of information in each paragraph
- Make sure the paragraphs flow together with linking words and phrases
This could be your last few paragraphs. Use them to conclude.
Produce a strong ending. Also unlike when writing news stories in the pyramid style, where the ending will be the first thing to get cut, the ending is crucial in a feature and will therefore not be the first element to be cut if it needs to be shortened.
You may choose to:
- Tie in with the beginning
- Use a strong quote – that perhaps throws it forward to the future
- Raise a pointed question
- Never use cliche’s like ‘only time will tell’…
Feature writing is quite exciting as it’s the first time on our MA International Journalism course where we are allowed to really explore a topic in detail and write in a different style to the succinct news style we’ve been practicing so far.
There are some key things to remember when writing a feature:
- Find a unique angle – something to grab your reader
- A good feature makes you laugh, cry, think
- Find a human angle
- It is good to pick something that you are an expert at
- Bring to light a distinctive part of an issue/event or person
- Your angle should reveal a side to a story that previously has not been explored
- Include facts (fact boxes and graphics can help to bring these alive)
- Plenty of original sources and quotes give a feature credibility
Types of feature
- News – this provides background and analysis to a news story or ongoing story
- Profile – of a person, organisation, event
- Specialist – on certain topic/theme
- Review – not necessarily a ‘proper’ feature but can count
- Column – an opinion piece, usually by an expert
- Advertorial – not journalism, but PR. A paid for article about a product/service to make it seem less like an advert
What does a feature do?
- Inform – tell the reader something they didn’t know
- Persuade – tell the reader how they should feel about something, what they should do
- Entertain – amuse
- Educate – provide background and understanding
What do you need to consider when writing a feature?
- Know your audience – which publication? How many people buy and read it? Average age of reader? Male or female? Lifestyle of person? Job of person? Where do they live? Political/social/religious affiliations? Disposable income? Interests?
- Define your angle – the main slant/approach/interpretation. This will frame your questions and research. Think original.
- What is your peg? – it must be topical. Why am I writing this now? Why is this interesting to my readers?
- Research – quotes and facts – quotes are the lifeblood of a story. Do not forget the importance of setting the context with facts and information. You can get opinion and analysis across through quotes – this is stronger than just giving your opinion.
- Internet research – look beyond wikipedia. Ensure you are using credible sites. Don’t plagiarise by lifting quotes from other articles. Always cite your source.
- Think cover lines/visual – plan the shape of your feature before starting to research/interviewing. Have a vision of the end layout of your feature. Think of appropriate photos/graphics/video footage to accompany. Think about the ‘cover line’ – what would sell/attract readers?
I’ve recently started work on a paid project outside of my MA in International Journalism. It’s a great way to build up my portfolio and practice and develop my video and editing skills in the run up to my final documentary which I will be producing in the summer.
The project is to produce a set of six short films for the Penwith Community Development Trust (PCDT) who are based in Penzance, Cornwall. The organisation is really interesting and works across a broad range of areas so the project will be great to get my teeth into a number of different themes.
I’m working on the project with a fellow course-mate Emma Fry. As a team we work really well together as we have the same commitment to pushing our video and editing skills to the next level and we can swap roles freely to give us both the chance to do a bit of everything. In terms of creativity it’s much better having two people together as you can bounce ideas off each other and take them further than when working alone.
Also accompanying us on film shoots, is another fellow course-mate Dan Holmes. As a skilled photographer he is coming along to capture still images for the organisation.
As the project is quite large we have set up a dedicated blog spec to document the progress. This will enable you to follow each stage of the work and see expanded interviews and read about the challenges and new things we learn.
Enjoy and please give us any feedback you have along the way!