“The Future” is not now

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We are living in an age of incredible technological achievements. Thanks to innovations in computers and tablets, social media, and wireless technology, people have an unprecedented ability to gather and share information immediately. Our phones are mini computers in our pockets, with the ability to do the work of a camera, tape recorder, music player, organizer, clock, and Nintendo 64 all in one. It’s an incredible power.

But in TV news, that power is being abused. To paraphrase Ian Malcolm, some people are more concerned about whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Whether it applies to TV news or dinosaurs brought back to life, Malcolm was right.

In the past three years, news directors have become enchanted with the idea of “embracing” technology. That is, using things like iPhones, iPads, spy cameras, Twitter and Facebook in their news coverage. The problem is that these things are being used by news directors to replace their existing tools – cameras, tripods, microphones, live trucks. They’re skipping to the end of the book before reading what happens in the middle.

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Everything you need to create a live shot – lights, camera, microphones, etc.

To pull off a live report, you need several tools: You need a photographer controlling a camera on a tripod. You need microphones for the reporter to use to pick up direct sound. You need a lighting kit to make sure the subject is well lit. And you need a live truck that allows you to control those elements and feed it back to a news station.

Replace it all with an iPad, and you get this:

A poorly lit, unsteady, crap-sounding, too close live shot that ends up showing us nothing at all. This is the “future” of TV news equipment, according to these misguided news directors. This is “embracing technology,” sacrificing the quality of a newscast, all in an attempt to … what, exactly?

iPhones may be an all-in-one tool for consumers, but it hasn’t become an all-in-one for reporters yet. The quality of built in cameras and on-board microphones has not achieved broadcast-level quality yet. The technology may reach that point in the future, but it’s still in its early stages. News directors like this one don’t realize that yet, and in doing so, they are slapping their viewers in the face. New technology is a great tool that news directors don’t know how to use, and as a result, everyone gets hurt – viewers, reporters, photographers, everyone.

Ian Malcolm said it best in “Jurassic Park.” New technology like this is an awesome force, but news directors are wielding it “like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.”

Once again, sadly, it comes down to money. iPhones are cheaper than broadcast cameras. It’s much cheaper to lay off hard-working photographers and force reporters to shoot their own live shots. News directors’ eyes are on the future, but their hands are on their wallets.

Just like all journalism tools that came before it, you need to find the right ways to use these new pieces of equipment. Enhance your equipment, don’t replace it.

iPhones are great at using quickly. During a breaking news situation, it’s much faster to pull at iPhone out of your pocket to shoot video that it is to rush back to the station, grab gear, drive back, set it up, and begin shooting. iPhones also allow you to post video online, which shares them with viewers almost instantly. As such, it’s a good tool to use when you are in a time crunch. After the initial breaking news, though, a broadcast camera is better equipped to shoot higher quality video, and pick up better sounding interviews.

iPhones are also good at getting in close, like this shot, taken from inside a bag. Screen shot 2014-11-07 at 11.42.55 AMA big, bulky news camera could never get that shot. Use smart phones in places where a larger camera can’t go.

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iPads are being used as mini-computers, and as scripts. A producer can field produce an entire show on an iPad, and a reporter can look up details or find a script without sorting through a pile of papers.

Treat new pieces of technology as an enhancement, just like we’ve always done. GoPro cameras are my favorite toys, and I love using them whenever I can in a story. The people who use them best are the guys from Top Gear:

Every shot from inside a car, or on the front of a jet ski, is being shot with those awesome little cameras. Again, those cameras add something new to a broadcast, but they don’t replace all cameras entirely. It’s used in a way that helps things jump out to a viewer. Could you imagine an entire Top Gear special shot with a GoPro? It would look lousy, because the tool would be used for something it can’t do yet.

I have no doubt that the future of video production will involve more mobile technology, but it’s not there yet. When it is, I’ll probably be the first in line to buy it. News directors trying to jump to the end of the book only hurt their own products in the process. For young journalists, I encourage you to experiment and find ways to use new tools in your storytelling, and push the limits of what you can create. But be very wary of a news director who tries to sell you on a future that hasn’t yet arrived.

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One thought on ““The Future” is not now

  1. Pingback: Using an iPhone? Use it right | Steven Sandberg

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