Describe what you see

Describe the scene: Smoke from the wildfire created a hazy veil over the Rogue Valley, making the sun invisible and turning sunsets into an odd glow on the horizon…

Print and radio have a lot in common. The most obvious similarity is that neither a written story nor an audio story has the advantage of using videos and images. At their most basic level, both print and radio rely on their words to tell the story.

For an audience that can’t see what we’re talking about, those words are vital. They become a way for the reporter to paint the picture for their audience. Those descriptions put your audience right there in the middle of the story. And the more that you practice it, you find that sometimes you don’t even need the images at all.

Some of the best newspaper articles and radio stories have learned a lot from each other and influenced each other. Radio reporters have always done a great job of acting as the eyes for their audience, describing the setting, the people, and the actions inside their story. Meanwhile, the best newspaper reporters know the best way to make your words count – picking the best words and eliminating unnecessary sections.

Put me, the viewer/reader, in the middle of the story, and don’t waste my time doing it.

As an example of this, let’s first check out a story by Adrienne Hill on new classroom technology being offered to offenders in a San Diego juvenile detention facility. The story aired last night on the public radio program “Marketplace.”

Being inside a detention facility can be an emotional, intense experience – walking through the desolate hallways, seeing the looks on offenders faces, looking at the world through a chain-link fence – but it’s easier to just show what it’s like using pictures and video. On radio, you don’t have that luxury, so Hill became the eyes for her audience:

San Diego’s Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility feels a lot like an adult prison.

Kids exercise in a courtyard surrounded by high fences and barbed wire. Probation officers, who double as security guards, keep close watch. In hallways, offenders are forbidden from making eye contact with adults.; they turn and face the wall as we pass.

Nearly every door has a heavy lock on it, including the classrooms.

(Sounds of door being unlocked)

But, behind these locked doors, the sense of powerlessness eases a little.

Now, your audience isn’t just listening to a story about a detention facility, they are inside it. They are walking down the corridors as offenders turn their backs, they see the barbed wire on the fences, they stand outside a heavily-locked door. Suddenly, this story becomes much more real.

And when you are a part of a story, you stick around to see what happens next.

Here’s another example from NPR’s Carrie Johnson in a story about sex-trafficking laws:

In this dark apartment not far from Dallas, a young woman pushes up her sleeve to show off a tattoo of a lotus flower. The deep purple ink covers up an older mark

“If you look closely, you can still see the diamonds, so it said M and a P because that’s what his name was, and it had a chain of diamonds around it.”

M.P. was her pimp. That earlier tattoo: a brand, to show the world she belonged to him.

This time, the reporter chooses to describe the woman and her actions in that moment. We know we are in a dark apartment, and we can picture her and visualize the tattoo she reveals under her sleeve.

So in radio, good descriptions are often a necessity. But what about in a print edition, when you can easily place a photo next to the story?

Well, photos can help illustrate, but they often can’t set the scene or describe the action on their own. Consider this article about twin pole-vaulters by The New York Times’ Jere Longman:

BLACK SPRINGS, Ark. — Just off Highway 8, amid the cattle pastures, chicken houses and hog farms in these rolling hills, is Pole Vault Lane. Its short, gravelly path is decorated with pennants, and it leads to a metal building about half the length of a football field. It is a hangar of sorts, or, more accurately, an indoor runway designed to produce short but spectacular flight.

On Saturday morning, the identical twins Lexi and Tori Weeks traveled two and a half hours to challenge the national indoor pole-vault record for high school girls: 14 feet 2 ¾ inches.

A photo can show the twins pole-vaulting. It can capture the emotions as they compete and celebrate. But on its own, it can’t describe the rustic surroundings at the event. It can’t explain the conditions the pair practice and compete it, or what it feels like to have such high expectations weigh on you as you walk up that gravel road toward the hangar.

When you have the luxury of photographs it can enhance your story and make it more visually appealing. But when you don’t have it, your story can still be just as visual and just as powerful, thank to your words and descriptions.

If you are a writer, practice with your next few stories by providing some kind of description at the beginning. Take us on a walk through your setting, or tell me what your interview subject is doing while you interview them. Make me feel like I am there. And if you’re a radio reporter, focus your next few stories on connecting with your audience, be their eyes and ears and provide detailed descriptions of what you see, along with good natural sounds to enhance the sensory experience.

Your stories can make your audience feel like they are a part of it, so practice the right techniques to make it feel that way.

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