Choose Your Multimedia Tools Strategically: Story is Still King

If everyone who has a hammer sees a world made only of nails, do reporters who know Illustrator think the world is one big infographic?

Choosing the right tool to tell the right story is one of the greatest challenges we faced during this summer’s round of Carnegie-Knight News21 fellowships at USC Annenberg. Our mandate, like that of any cutting-edge news crew, was to at once tell the most in-depth stories while being as innovative as possible. But sometimes these two principles can pull against each other.

New multimedia tools, now reproducing themselves exponentially, provide reporters and editors with sometimes awe-inspiring ways to tell our stories. Learning to master these tools and when to choose them, however, can be as important as which tool a surgeon requests for a certain procedure in the compressed atmosphere of an OR.

Selecting the wrong application for your need, or innovating for the sake of innovation itself, can be as big a mistake as ignoring these tools to better tell your story.

We made these decisions as best we could as our Annenberg News21 fellows spent 10 weeks this summer developing their reporting packages on California in Crisis.

As an example, take a look at the wonderful package on the hidden faces of Orange County produced by reporter/fellow Tara Graham. On her story page, the navigational graphic is both stunning and imaginative.

Yet, old-fashioned text was the best way to tell her incisive story on Ladera Ranch, an upper middle-class gated community where foreclosures are rampant. Few of her subjects wanted to be photographed or even named on the record. Most of the homes looked the same, so it made little sense for her to clutter her pieces with photos or a slideshow. Tara’s evocative prose did the trick.

By contrast, her reporting on a young girl who was spending her Sundays on the sidewalks of the Santa Ana Civic Center as her impoverished family looked for donated food was translated into an audio slideshow. The young girl’s articulate and poignant narration of her own life, her dreams and despair would only be degraded if filtered through the text of a reporter. The girl tells her own story better than anyone else could ever imagine.

We encountered a similar situation with the reporting done by fellows Katie Evarts and Alaena Hostetter on the dying desert mining town of Boron – home to the iconic 20 Mule Team Borax. Katie’s elegant prose, a lengthy text story, was clearly the best vehicle to synthesize and unpack the rise and fall of this company town. The web videos produced by Alaena, in turn, allowed a series of experts and protagonists to build upon Katie’s words.

Fellow Kevin Patra wanted to tell the story of increasing budget cuts in California’s state university and college systems. This is a story about numbers. And about real people dealing with those numbers. So in his package we see a lot of data visualization, an interactive app that allows the user to decide how to fund education and, yes, some well-written text stories that better than any graph or chart outlines the challenges the students themselves are facing.

Moral of the story: all that glitters is not gold. When I was a child, my mother discovered the marvelous and then-innovative technique of gold-leafing. She carefully refinished an antique credenza with this method and the outcome was dazzling. The retouched piece highlighted the complex character of our modest home. Then, she went overboard. Within months, the walls of the living room, the den, the bathroom and even the ceiling of one bedroom were soon covered in the same gold leaf. The result, was that a once comfy home full of history and nuance had been destroyed by an overkill of glitz.

Marc Cooper co-coordinates USC Annenberg News21 with Prof. Patricia Dean. Marc is an Associate Professor of Professional Practice and Director of Annenberg Digital News, publisher of the online site Neon Tommy.

About Marc Cooper