Revisiting my radio speaking days with audio reporting

I’ve read over and over and over again about how smell is the sense with the strongest tie to memory. I don’t think the scientists who tout that fact are wrong, not by any means, but I’m curious what their findings would be about sound.

Sound, like smell, has the ability to snap you back to a moment in time. One Beatles song and I’m in the car on the way back from my junior prom. The opening notes of Bohemian Rhapsody send me flying back to sixth grade, shouting the crazy lyrics with my five best friends. The first strains of the camp-like intro to the Tefilah bring tears to my eyes during services, reminding me just how homesick I’ve been for the synagogue I grew up in.

Sound is powerful. In it we can lose ourselves for minutes or for hours. And it has the unique ability, like visuals, to show rather than tell. These are things I’ve always intellectually known. But because sound is not my primary medium for reporting, it’s easy to forget.

This week, I’ve been working on an audio slideshow and NPR-style radio story. Both projects require me to step into the complicated world of sound editing, and after hours of work, I’m amazed that I only produce a minute or so of product. But boy, is it fun. Maybe I’m just taken with my new skills, but it just sounds so polished! I can imagine hearing it on the radio, and while I’ve been publishing text stories for years now, I’m surprised by this.

I love how the sound is able to add context and background to a piece just by virtue of what it is. You don’t need anyone to explain why a story about instruments needs music, or why a story about cooking is made richer by hearing pans clanking or food sizzling in a pan. In a way, the sound paints a picture, a concept we explored in Thursday’s class on writing for the ear.

In addition to a whole host of writing strategies, A reporter working with audio has to be aware of what kinds of images that sound brings to mind. Does it illustrate the right image, or take the reader in the wrong direction? It’s similar with voice; is your narration adding to the story, or are you being lackluster without realizing it? The pitch and speed of your voice make a difference because those aspects can communicate different things to your reader. Ending every sentence in upstyle makes you sound inquisitive or unsure. Talking quickly can add a sense of urgency or be just plain confusing. And all the sound, voice and natural, has to flow together in a logical way to tell a story that is engaging and accurate.

The voice coaching and writing techniques take me back to my high school speech team days as a radio speaker, only now I have to create the content, not just voice it. I’m finding that although I’m slowly embracing the individual aspects of audio reporting — recording good quality clips, sorting through the sound files, building the tracks — putting it all together into something resembling journalism is a new challenge. Before, it was about demonstrating whether I could do this task or that task, but now, I have to do those things (and do them well) and turn it into a cohesive story, much like I would with text.

I’m looking forward to the day when it doesn’t feel like as much of an undertaking, but something tells me it’ll be a while before I get to any level of autopilot.


Going in with fresh eyes

Prompt: How has the photo work you’ve done so far affected the way you see the world?

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: taking photos is hard. There’s a lot to focus on, and even though I’ve been trying to be more aware of backgrounds and distracting elements, I still miss things.

During a shoot for an upcoming assignment, however, I did find myself thinking about the subjects differently when scouring the room for detail shots. I tried to imagine what different angles I could take, where in the room I could stand to get a different shot or focus on a specific detail. I hadn’t approached an assignment that way before, so some of my better shots were more due to luck than my own skill. I was more focused on capturing interesting movement than anything else. I can’t say I walk through life now constantly thinking about how I could make a picture of that moment, but I am especially paying more attention to light and composition when I see an interesting scene.

I think part of thinking differently about taking photos is thinking about what experience I bring to the subject — as a dancer, I can anticipate certain moments, to an extent, because I have taken hundreds of dance classes. I know the poses that typically end a grand allegro and how to use the music and counts to figure out when someone will jump, turn or land. As I have been photographing dancers, I have to be very aware of those moments because they often make the best images.

I can also be a lens (literally and figuratively) into a world that not everyone has access to. What about a dance studio have people not seen before that might interest them? Perhaps it’s a girl nonchalantly lifting her leg over her head. Or perhaps it’s a cubby stuffed with scuffed satin pointe shoes. To me, those things might not seem so odd or unusual, but to others, they could be strange or make them inwardly cringe.

Whatever the specific subject, I’ve had to have fresh eyes when entering a world that is already familiar to me, and that has ultimately done the most to change how I approach photography.

And in the fifth week, I created sound.

Prompt: What have you learned from doing the short audio assignment that could be applied to longer, radio-style audio feature work?

Whenever I see examples of new work, my first thought is usually, “Oh wow, I could never make something like that,” or I just begin to imagine gargantuan amounts of work I have to do, pretty much overwhelming myself in the process.

Such was the case last week when learning to audio in class. Reuben showed us the steps, but I still couldn’t quite bridge the gap between what I’d already collected the night before and the polished finished product in front of me. There are just a lot of adjustments and factors that I don’t have control over — or rather, things I don’t think to control for when I am in the moment.

It’s intimidating enough to go out and have to interview someone for any reason, whether you know them or not. Add in a bunch of equipment and very specific parameters on noise and sound, and you have a whole other animal. Remembering not to move too much or talk or “mmhmmm” or shift my feet around or knock the microphone connection is distracting enough, but I also have to engage my subject and listen for good quotes and try to keep the interview going in general. Even when I’m my most pleasant, engaging self with a subject, interviewing is hard and uncomfortable. It’s hard to put into practice all the skills and techniques I’ve learned and be attuned to how everything sounds.

I’m used to interviews being part of the process, not the product. For my next assignment, that will be a big thing I have to focus on. I need to be even more on my game and sure of how I want to lead the conversation so I can project confidence and knowledge to my subject. I noticed that the more absent-minded I felt or the less complete my questions were, the less complete his answers were. In just a spoken interview, I can meander a little and lead a subject back on track by slowing working up to a question or sharing some personal information to warm things up. For audio interviews, this is harder because I’m looking for more precise words; I might be able to paraphrase in text to get at the heart of what someone meant or help connect their ideas, but I can’t do that with sound. It’s a much more “pure” form of an interview, so to speak, because I play much less of an interpreter role as a multimedia reporter than I do as a text reporter.

In short, I need to:

  • Have more straightforward, open questions at the ready
  • Make sure my mic is close enough to my subject without being obtrusive or awkward
  • Gather a better variety of natural sound
  • Learn to affirm and guide an interview without verbal cues
  • Translate my text interview skills to audio interviews — be confident, curious and engaging while still getting appropriate audio material

As cool as it as and as much as I think it adds to the user experience, I’m still trying to get over the inconvenience of carrying, setting up and using extra equipment. However, based on how well I think this first try at audio reporting turned out, I am not dreading round 2 as much as I expected. Inconveniences and discomfort aside, I forget how much I really enjoy radio-style journalism, and it’s fun to be able to learn to create that.

The benefit of critiques

Prompt 4: What specific ideas from class discussions and assigned readings will you incorporate (or have already incorporated) into your work on the upcoming 3-photos and slideshow assignments?

Moments: From looking at the POYi photos from the readings and the other decisive moment photos in class, I want to do better at finding moments to capture. This means taking more photos and getting more involved with whats happening with my subjects than what’s happening with my camera.

Backlighting: During critiques, a few of us had problems with our subjects being too dark and backgrounds being to bright. Although I think I’m getting better at judging light through the camera and making it responsive, I need to do a better job at judging the light outside and how it pertains to my subjects (where it is coming from, how it affects the face and background, etc.).

Backgrounds: Every time I take a photo, I feel like when trying to incorporate what I’ve learned so far, I inadvertently leave something new out. In the last assignment, I included some distracting backgrounds without realizing it. I need to train my eye to see everything in the shot.

Although it makes me a little self-conscious, I like the opportunities we’ve had in class to critique each other’s work. Just like with writing, I get protective about photos I’ve taken, perhaps even more so because I am far less certain of myself with a camera than I am with a pen and notebook.

Just like I’m learning to let go of that desperate protective feeling with writing, it’s becoming easier to let go of it with other types of journalism, too. I just have to remind myself that the collaboration is what helps me learn. I might be a person who likes to recharge alone, but I have to work with people. I need to talk things out and brainstorm and grapple with ideas. So no matter how uncomfortable it is, the class discussions and critiques have really helped.


Photojournalism is hard, and other things I learned this week

“Patience,” my father says, “Is a virtue.” Any unfortunately, it’s one I tend to lack. So of course it’s also the virtue I’ve needed most so far this semester in J7802. Which leads me to this week’s topic:

Week 3 prompt: What have you learned from doing the Seeing Red assignment and the related discussions in class?

Words are fast. Explaining things in words is easy (for me). Photos…less so. It’s slower. More deliberate. Composition in photos requires you to do all your work on the spot as it happens. Composition in words can be done after the fact, once I’ve had time to digest and react.

In the seeing red assignment, I was most focused on not screwing up my lighting and using the camera correctly. What I’m learning is that I need to focus more on composition in the moment. Less guess and check, more do. In my first semester of reporting I was told that what I produced was more important than what I tried to produce, and I’m seeing that’s true in all aspects of journalism. If you can’t produce a good photo, you need to get yourself into a situation where you can, no excuses.

During my work for subsequent assignments, I’ve tried to be more aware of composition, but it’s a lot of moving parts to keep track of at once. I need to get over the fact that some things are beyond my control and just try to work within the situation to get photos that don’t have distracting elements or are off-kilter in some way. It’s going to take patience. And practice. It’s going to require that I be confident in my technical skills so I can focus more on the content. And in time, those things will come.

My short term goals would be to do more thinking of composition in the moment and more careful editing after the fact to consider anything that I can fix to strengthen my photos. I’m used to editing for text; there’s a mental checklist I use with every story so I can make sure I’m not leaving stones unturned.

I don’t have the same comfort here yet. I don’t know everything to look for or what common pitfalls are. I have a teacher and classmates to guide me, but it feels a little like going in blind. It’s been a while, relatively speaking, since I had to learn how to report something from scratch, and I had forgotten how off-putting it felt to be completely new at something and still have to perform like a pro. It’s a little irritating to have to develop a new system, but it’s helpful that at least for text I already know the process I’ll need to go through.

TL;DR: be patient, Shaina. No one mastered photo composition overnight.