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An introduction to multimedia reporting and the future of journalism

An introduction to multimedia reporting and the future of journalism

omemarian | September 16, 2009

**This is the first in a series of articles on multimedia reporting by Iranian journalist and blogger Omid Memarian.**

Until a few years ago, journalists reported mainly through a single platform, and thus required skills in only one medium -- for instance, audio, video, photography or print.

In recent years, with the decrease in price of digital audio and video equipment, and increase in audio and video platforms, many journalists have become proficient in multiple mediums.

Multimedia tools provide reporters with a better means to communicate and narrate events to their audiences. Broadcast or print platforms allow for only limited information; multimedia tools have broken the barriers of storytelling. (For an example of excellent multimedia reporting, have a look at "Talking to the Taliban," a portrait of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan published by Canada's Globe and Mail.)

Because of the advantages of multimedia, journalism schools across the globe are introducing multimedia programs in addition to print and broadcast course offerings. Such programs equip current and future journalists with a variety of skills, enabling them to report across platforms.

How to approach multimedia stories

The first and most important decision in multimedia reporting is choosing the appropriate storytelling platform. To do this, consider a story's main component. For instance, a story best told through print might be complemented by pictures and audio. In a more visual story, pictures may be the main focus.

Some argue against choosing the main reporting platform ahead of news gathering. If a journalist decides to produce a photo-based story but faces technical challenges in the field, for instance, the story will be dead. With more variety in story gathering tools, a story could be presented through alternative mediums if the preferred medium fails.

To avoid problems in the field, plan ahead. Assess the tools needed to capture content, and test them ahead of time. The more familiar a journalist is with his/her media outlet and the resources and reporting tools available, the better prepared he will be. What's more, just as traditional journalists study their topic and subjects before going into the field, multimedia reporters must do their homework.

Lastly, working effectively in a multimedia newsroom requires teamwork. For an example of teamwork, have a look at "Beijing Beat," a multimedia report on the Chinese people in Beijing and San Francisco, U.S. Published by the washingtonpost.com. The report was produced by a team of graduate students at UC Berkeley.

Substituting pictures and audio for text

Good writing is still a very important element of any multimedia report. In many cases, stories are based on text, and complemented with photos, slideshows or audio files. However, more and more, journalists are using multimedia primarily, assessing various platforms for telling different aspects of a story. In many multimedia stories, text is used only to provide a brief background, leaving visual and audio elements to tell the story.

Especially with advances in software in recent years, "multimedia can enhance a standard print story," says Babak Dehghanpisheh, a Newsweek correspondent, who has reported extensively from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Photo essays with voice narration, for instance, and short video clips -- between two to five minutes -- are great and easy ways to enhance a print story on the Web.

He also says interactive graphics or maps are especially engaging for users, in addition to a print story. This interactive multimedia "game" published by the San Francisco Chronicle helps users understand the crisis facing their city's water system.

The role of different platforms in telling a story

As multimedia reporting develops, so do audience's tastes -- and they constantly demand more. Because of this, most online reports are accompanied by slideshows, audio files and video.

The New York Times is a good example of a media organization shifting away from a single platform by integrating various reporting platforms in storytelling. (Here is a recent example of a Times print report complemented by multimedia.) Editors persuade their reporters to record interviews and take photos, so multimedia elements can be added later, after a story is filed. Often, the reporter shoots the video and takes the pictures.

But when applying various platforms to a single story, text, audio and video components should complement, not repeat, each other, cautions Gabriela Keller, a correspondent for Germany's Die Welt newspaper, who has worked in a multimedia environment for many years. And "the reader needs to take an active role by deciding which parts he is going to click on and which he is not, and in what order," Keller says.

One great advantage of having various components "is that you can considerably broaden the scope [of the story] by including information which would not fit into print, space- or content-wise," she says.

But it is still important to pay attention to content. Often, "form in multimedia stories is more important than content," she says. "Web sites seem to feel they need to offer multimedia to the reader, no matter if it makes sense or not."

Memarian is an award winning Iranian journalist and blogger whose articles have been published by the New York Times, San Fransisco Chronicle and the LA Times. Memarian is a multimedia journalism graduate of UC Berkeley.

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