How AJ+ covered Ferguson with just a mobile device

by Jessica Weiss
Oct 30, 2018 in Mobile Journalism

Are the days of lugging heavy video and electronic gear to breaking news events coming to an end? AJ+, Al Jazeera's new digital news outlet, covered some of the year’s biggest U.S. news events with little more than an iPhone.

Shadi Rahimi, AJ+’s deputy producer of engagement, recently reported on the ground from Ferguson, Missouri, covering the lead-up and response to the grand jury’s “no indictment” decision regarding Officer Darren Wilson. Over a period of two months, she and Senior Producer Brooke Minters traveled three times to Ferguson, producing numerous news packages entirely on mobile.

“Activists and media professionals alike would often come up to us and ask about our equipment,” Rahimi told IJNet. “All were surprised to learn we were producing our content with iPhones.”

The team also used similar gear to produce news packages, mini-docs and breaking news on social media during the Climate March and Flood Wall Street events in New York, as well as at recent protests in Oakland and Berkeley, California.

IJNet recently spoke to Rahimi about the experience.

Can you tell us about the mobile kit you used in Ferguson and its cost?

The equipment costs several hundred dollars, minus the cost of an iPhone 5. Our kit consists of a Manfrotto monopod ($199 or less), small Rode VideoMic Pro shotgun mic ($169), an Audio Technica wired lav mic for interviews ($50), an iKan LED light for night shooting ($115), and metal housing for the iPhone that mounts the Rode and light and attaches to the monopod. We also use a wide-angle lens adaptor for the iPhone ($70).

What’s the benefit of using a mobile rig at a protest?

The size and weight of an iPhone rig means you can move nimbly and capture shots over crowds by extending the monopod over heads. We edit directly on our phones by trimming video, when time allows, and sending our footage immediately back to the office by using the real-time messaging service Slack. This set AJ+ apart from many of the other news organizations on ground at the Climate March and in Ferguson. Activists were seen live streaming (which we also did), and other journalists were tweeting photos and Vine clips, but we were the only news organization on the ground sending back interview clips, reactions from crowds, clashes with police, as they happened. Our audience grew by the hour.

And what are some of the challenges of using this equipment?

Of course there are limitations to such shooting: Your depth of field and zoom range is very limited. Capturing clean, sharp sound can sometimes be a problem. The wide-angle lens would often fog up in rain and snow. There aren’t rain jackets made yet to accommodate such a set up, so we sometimes used garbage bags. But the benefits far outweigh those issues.

Will AJ+ continue using mobile rigs?

I’m from the camp that believes it’s much more important to get raw news out quickly than to be bogged down by concerns over quality when reporting breaking news. Although all the various forms of storytelling at our disposable remain vital, I even believe this new generation of media consumers - our predominantly millennial social media audience - trusts what it sees on live stream and raw video more than scripted pieces. Some of my colleagues and I, including Japhet Weeks, who filmed for AJ+ on the ground in New York City, envision gearing up a new generation of news gatherers: An AJ+ “mobile army.”

Photo of Minters (left) and Rahimi (right) courtesy of AJ+.