Comments at International Online Symposium

Below is a rough version of the comments I made at the recent 10th International Symposium on Online Journalism, held at the University of Texas at Austin:

Despite the fact that America is engaged in two wars, the number of foreign correspondents working overseas and sending information back to the United States about these conflicts, is diminishing. Since 9/11, according to the Washington Post, the number of American journalists working overseas for U.S. newspapers has decreased by about 20 percent.

The picture of American broadcast networks is even bleaker. Bureaus close around the world and staff is reduced. In late December, The New York Times reported that, “Quietly, as the United States presidential election and its aftermath have dominated the news, America’s three broadcast network news divisions have stopped sending full-time correspondents to Iraq.”

At no time is the flow of information more important than in times of conflict, because so much is at stake. Most Americans still get the bulk of their news from television. More and more, however, American television has forgotten its social responsibility to provide citizens with information they need to make important decisions about their lives and the life of the country.

Imagine how different the world might be today if there were MORE, as opposed to FEWER, independent voices abroad reporting on the Bush administration’s mythical weapons of mass destruction or the non-existent ties between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorists. One could argue that the administration would have found it more difficult to invade Iraq had the media uncovered the façade before the invasion was launched.

Mainstream U.S. media outlets argue that they are forced to reduce staff and resources overseas because of rising costs.

An emerging model called “backpack journalism” can help fill the void created by mainstream media. Advances in technology and the development of small, portable, high definition digital cameras – coupled with the Internet – have democratized the field. Now, more people than ever have access to the tools of visual communication for television and the web.

But technology does not necessarily translate into quality. Just because so many people have access to the tools of production does not mean that the visual communication that we see so much of today is necessarily good. Take a look at YouTube or, for that matter, many of the video components of leading newspapers, to confirm this. Too much of what we see on the web today is material generated by people who lack the proper training and an appropriate understanding of the visual language.

If done properly, this visual language supersedes written and spoken languages. See this example, “Afghanistan: The Forgotten War,” which I shot, produced and wrote and which aired on NOW on PBS in July 2008:

This is a “character-driven” documentary in which the visuals drive the message, the visuals being the most powerful component of what I refer to as “three-dimensional chess.” The other components are natural sound and narration.

Character-driven. That’s the key. Because unless your audience gets to know the characters that drive your story, the audience never becomes emotionally or intellectually invested in the piece.

Check out this story that I produced, co-shot and co-wrote for NOW on PBS, where it aired in October 2008:

Myself and colleagues shot many hours of footage, with a number of potential characters, until we found those characters who embodied the important points we wanted to make in the program. The most powerful of these is the young woman who fell from a New York rooftop and survived. We open the story with her to make immediate emotional contact with the audience, then brought her back to close the story.

The best scripts are not mounds of information that we dump upon the audience. The best scripts are conversations between the filmmaker and the audience. In regards to this, we open the piece by asking the audience, “What is going to happen to this terribly injured young woman?” And we close the piece by showing the audience what happens to her at the story’s close.

Learning this visual language is not easy – which is why so many people do it improperly. I have had the great good fortune of working in just about every facet of journalism, which prepared me for the challenges of this craft.

Now I teach at American University in Washington, DC, and I conduct regular Backpack Journalism Workshops with NOW on PBS to instruct students in this language that we call “visual communication.” See