Changing standards: Video quality vs. technology

June 2, 2016 01:30

By Simon Perez, RTDNA Contributor
Casual observers of local TV news have certainly noticed the shift in the quality of video that’s allowed onto newscasts. Once the standard was professional photojournalism or bust: Razor-sharp focus, impeccable white balance, rule-of-thirds framing with the camera fixed rock solid on a tripod. Now grainy, shaky, blurry video with poor audio is accepted – and this in the era of HD. How ironic the public surfs over SD channels, but will accept (even expect) amateur cell phone video as part of a news story. The switch isn’t necessarily a result of lower standards, but changing ones. There are two catalysts to this evolution:
1. Everyone has a camera. Sometimes the lousy, amateur cell phone video is the only video and a TV station feels obligated to run it. This is a good thing, because, in the past, if the professional photojournalists didn’t get it, no one saw it. Now, we are all beneficiaries of millions of mobile devices capturing reality every day.
2. Advancing technology makes it cheaper and easier for professionals to use alternative equipment. These “lesser” tools have become another weapon in the storytelling arsenal, especially for MMJs who bear the burden of fulfilling the roles of two or three people. Station managers are open to new newsgathering ideas that help MMJs get the job done more quickly without sacrificing too much quality.
This second phenomenon is of most interest to photojournalism professionals working in TV newsrooms today. It’s clear, new technologies are expanding the ways journalists can tell their stories, and newsrooms are accommodating these advances.
Smart phones as video cameras
A smart MMJ will see a smart phone (or two) as an extra camera that can supplement the core video being shot with a professional video camera. Sure, the smart phone video will likely not have the same clear audio and the iris control will not be as sharp. But what’s lost in quality is gained in flexibility.
  • MMJs often shoot video in cramped cars on cop ride-alongs, or in an extreme hurry just after arriving on the scene. With a traditional camera, cumbersome and slow. With a smart phone, easily doable.
  • A smart phone can give a standup extra flair by providing a point of view a traditional camera can’t (at least not without a lot of time-consuming setup.) Imagine an MMJ talking down to a smart phone that’s placed on the sidewalk – the viewer suddenly gets the feel for height and distance that would otherwise be missed.
Smart phones as still photo cameras
One of the standard practices of many TV news stories is shooting documents. Shot traditionally, this can be a tedious chore:
  • Use tape to affix the document to a wall, perpendicular to the camera;
  • Get the camera on the tripod within inches of the document;
  • Switch to macro mode so the document is in focus;
  • Shoot various parts of the document, without ever really getting close enough to highlight what you want the viewers to focus on.
Enter the smart phone. Hold the phone over the document and with a click, you’ve got a JPEG image that’s quickly imported into a non-linear video editing program. Once there, it’s a matter of minutes using the software to zoom in on the specific words the MMJ wants to highlight. As crisp and clear as shooting with an HD camera? No. But good enough to be worth saving several minutes of shooting time? Definitely.
Video over internet interviews
Once the domain of lazy reporters who couldn’t bother actually going to the subject’s home, Skype and Google+ interviews are now considered legitimate solutions to making sure a story includes all perspectives. Again, while the video and audio are not equal to the results of traditional cameras, what’s lost in quality is gained in content. No longer does, “I’m out of town on vacation” eliminate someone from being included in a story. The proof is in the pudding – TV newsrooms now have desktop stations outfitted with web cameras dedicated to conducting video-over-internet interviews. Often, there’s a direct connection to ENG (where all the feeds come into the station) for quick recording and turnaround back to the MMJ.
In the end, newsrooms have decided video that’s “good enough” is OK, if, in exchange, the results are better-told stories, with more video angles and more interviews.
Technology has democratized newsgathering as millions of people can now capture video. Perhaps their experience “behind the camera” has altered the way they watch the news on TV. Both photojournalists and news consumers are adjusting their expectations accordingly.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this post suggested shooting smart phone video while driving, which may be unsafe.)

Simon Perez is Assistant Professor of Broadcast and Digital Journalism at the Newhouse School, Syracuse University



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