Tuesday, April 13, 2010

'I Am a Journalist... and I Play One on Web Video'

Anyone who's worked in a newsroom knows that real reporters and editors talk as elliptically, offhandedly and, um, colorfully as the rest of us. In casual conversation, real journalists in real life are as prone to misstatements, unintentional errors, and faux pas as the people they report and write about.

The trouble is, most people haven't worked in a newsroom. So any civilian who "spies" on the morning editorial meeting that kicks off the New York Times' daily TimesCast video might understandably surmise that journalists are a different breed of human, who speak fully formed crisp thoughts in complete grammatically correct sentences -- or what those in the trade call "quotes" (print) or "soundbites" (broadcast). It's almost as though we're watching scripted actors. They even dress more like spiffy TV and movie versions of newspaper staffs.

And therein lies the rub. It's always been an interesting ethical conundrum as to whether videojournalists (and this includes shooters for TV news and feature-length documentaries) should allow their subjects a "retake." Remember, most people are not comfortable nor accustomed to being in front of a camera, so they often stumble and bumble while trying to form a coherent response to an interviewer's question. They don't want to look bad, so they'll sometimes ask for a second chance, now that they have the answer formulated and ready to articulate.

On the one hand, it can be argued that it's the journalist's job to document reality on the first take; on the other, everyone deserves to be depicted fairly. But there is no simple solution, and only a hornet's nest of ancillary conundrums (e.g. what happens if the response changes on the second take?) Ultimately it's a question of whether the audience is getting a correct and truthful picture of the subject and the situation, and the reporter has to be the arbiter of that.

Now let's see what happens when the reporter is the subject. And not just the subject of an interview (which can be re-shot and/or edited to his advantage), but of a documentary-style scene (i.e. the editorial meeting). Compound that by the fact that what they are saying is relied upon for being factual. What if an editor misspeaks in an editorial meeting? Does he get a re-take (and should the audience be alerted to that)?

That's exactly what happened in one of the first TimesCasts -- and at the time, it wasn't much of a dilemma, because nobody noticed the gaffe until it was too late. Once caught, executive editor Bill Keller (pictured) remarked, “Agh. This is why I went into print rather than TV.”

As the Times itself reported:
Because “TimesCast” is taped and edited, Keller said he should have said, “cut,” and given a more careful summary of the story then in progress. Ann Derry, the editor in charge of the paper’s video operations, said, “Several pairs of eyes view every segment — and the entire show — before it goes up.” She said they all missed Keller’s errors and will “‘button up’ our procedures going forward.”
But what exactly does that entail? It seems that, no matter what, we will be treated to a Hollywoodization of an editorial meeting -- with real journalists, real stories, real situations... but ultimately a fake experience. Since everyone is camera-conscious to begin with, and subject to editing, it can never actually be a true fly-on-the-wall depiction.

Does it matter? Should it matter? What are your thoughts?

No comments: