Smartphone Storytelling: Preventing Baltimore in Oklahoma City

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This is the beginning of an ongoing series I call, “Smartphone Storytelling,” an exploration of how smartphones can play new roles in journalism. Throughout the series, I will limit myself strictly to a smartphone (Galaxy S5) and a laptop (Macbook Pro). I will not use tripods, external microphones, car mounts, or any accessories beyond the built-in features of these two devices (excluding charging and transfer cables). This allows me to work solely with the tools that even the average highshool student would have access to. My hopes is to discover new approaches towards how journalists can use these devices and encourage everyone that, should they have these two basic tools, they have all the power to make their voice heard around the world.

PREVENTING BALTIMORE IN OKLAHOMA CITY

The story I worked on is titled, “Preventing Baltimore in Oklahoma City.” Previously living in Baltimore, I currently reside in Oklahoma City. I was drawn to the coverage of April’s protests that shook Baltimore. Having seen police-involved deaths here in Oklahoma, I wanted to see what changes were being made and needed to be made to prevent the events of Baltimore from happening here. Speaking with both police and community leaders, I crafted my story. However, anyone in journalism can say how a story changes at a moment’s notice. One moment of breaking news drastically changed everything.

STORYTELLING WITH A SMARTPHONE

This story, being the first, was really meant to be with my technical comfort zone. I did not envision any difficult shots or recording challenges when I started. In fact, the work was made very easy as the phone served a critical part in the story’s development. I conducted research on my phone, made calls, used it’s GPS to get me to the various locations, monitored social media (which is how I discovered the in-custody death), logged my recordings, and was even considering downloading a police scanner app. The combination of the built-in features and apps allow for a great deal of innovation.

Both interior interviews were straightforward. I sat down, supported my elbows with the desktop, and held the phone with both hands (always shooting horizontally). I made sure both the interviews were in a quiet space. Smartphones ‘ microphones act omnidirectionally and will pick up a lot noise. It was imperative to get my phone very close to my subjects (3-4 feet). This shortcoming was what prevented me from getting any useful audio during the press talk by the police at the scene of the in-custody death. Having arrived in the middle of it, I couldn’t get any closer and kept at a distance that picked up too much traffic noise. Recording my own track was perhaps the easiest and I was happy with the quality of the recording.

Broll became considerable harder to film due to the lack of a worthwhile zoom on the camera. The phone did a satisfactory job in capturing wide shots but limited my angles and ability to focus on specific subjects. The medium shots of the police cars suffered both from quality and camera shake. This would be the primary reason why a smartphone would face challenges in reporting on sports and other stories that require the ability to zoom in on the action. To get those great closeups, you physically will need to get closer (which can’t always happen).

At many points in the story, I used video and pictures from other sources. A quick search of “Baltimore protests 2015” under a creative commons filter on Youtube turned up solid video. I also got permission from Mr. Washington to use his videos and images on Facebook. Some online download tools, such as keepvid.com, allowed me to easily get what I needed. With just the one phone, I utilized my laptop’s camera to record my conversations with the OKC media. Additionally, I used Quicktime’s screen capture ability to get the broll of the OKC PD social media sites. All of it allowed me to have many more elements in crafting my story.

For this story, I can’t say I really pushed the boundaries of smartphone use. I did however demonstrate that a complex story can be told with simple tools. I look forward in future entries to have more opportunities to getting up close to subjects and seeing what I can really do.

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Why the Digital Revolution Changes Nothing

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It was the French journalist, Alphonse Karr, who said “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The advent of mobile technology and social media has both drastically altered the news business and also hardly changed it at all. A contradiction? No, it just depends on what you are examining. The relevance of these changes depend on whether you are speaking of the news organization or the journalist.

News organizations have had to adapt quickly to the era of the smartphone. People are engaging far differently with news content than ever before. According the American Press Institute, well over 70% of mobile device users utilize their devices for news consumption (API, 2014). News audiences are demanding immediacy from their news sources. The news organization must meet this growing demand with a vigilant online presence across multiple venues.

The news organization that creates content for traditional and digital audience benefits from increased viewership. While statistics demonstrate a large boost in digital audiences, the Pew Research Center shows healthy growth for broadcast news, as well (PRC, 2015). Local TV news has seen a 2-3% growth with national TV news growing by 2-5%. This data shows audiences are not choosing one media or the other but engaging news across a variety of platforms. News organizations that fully embrace their digital venues are seeing not only a larger audience but a more engaged audience.

Unlike ever before, audiences are more than just consumers but producers of the news. Whether they serve as news aggregators or even citizen journalists, audiences are now involved in the discussion alongside the reporters. Their added voices to the conversation is a double-edged sword. As stated previously, an engaged audience is certainly a boost for news organizations but that same audience creates an uncontrollable factor. The risk of a single bad tweet, a single inappropriate photo, a single piece of misinformation is ever present. Audiences are not bound to expectations of journalistic integrity. Additionally, the audience’s demand for immediacy dictates what journalists will cover and how it will be covered. News organizations now face the risks and challenges of engaging an audience who can talk back.

Yes, the things have changed. It seems as if the whole news world, for better or worse, has been turned on its head. My companion piece, Wagging the Dog, shows as much. However, the solution to all the challenges faced in this brave new digital world has always been known. Good journalism requires good journalists. In their book, “Advancing the Story: Journalism in a Multimedia World,” Debora Wenger and Deborah Potter write, “ As the technology used to manage the content becomes easier to navigate, multimedia journalism is likely to become less about knowing how to post a story or use a smartphone to capture video and more about the skills its takes to gather and present information that is relevant and compelling to an audience – regardless of whether that audience is watching, reading or interacting with the story.”

The role of a journalist has not and will not change. We are still expected to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent (SPJ, 2014). The advances in technology and audience engagement complicate our roles and will require more effort. However, the responsibilities of a journalist will remain the same across time, technology, and culture.

References:

American Press Institute, 2014. “The Personal News Cycle: How Americans choose to get their news.” American Press Institute. 17 Mar, 2014. Web. 19, May, 2015.

Mitchell, A., 2015. “State of the News Media 2015.” The Pew Research Center. 29 Apr, 2015. Web. 19 May, 2015.

Wenger, Debora Halpern, and Deborah Potter. “The Multimedia Mind-set.” Advancing the Story: Journalism in a Multimedia World. Third ed. CQ, 2015. 11. Print.

SPJ, 2014. “SPJ Code of Ethics.” Society of Professional Journalists. 6 Sept, 2014. Web. 19 May, 2015