This is one of 10 essays I’m offering at the close of 2021 that will hopefully help broadcast journalists tell stronger stories in the year ahead.
One of the first things a college professor taught me about writing for television was that “words and pictures should match.” It took me several years to find out that this advice and professor was wrong.
Let’s imagine I’m making a story about the tremendous amount of logistics put into the network’s news teams’ coverage of the Mayfield, Kentucky tornado this month. Imagine using a video from CNN host Boris Sanchez who is about to go on the air.
My college professor’s “Make-the-Words-and-Pictures-Match” rule would make me write something like, “CNN reporter Boris Sanchez is standing in a parking lot about to start broadcasting. Are in the background Debris to see. “But all of this the viewer could see clearly. Needless to say, what you can see clearly.
If I explain the video instead of telling it, I can add more information than the viewer would know without me. I could say, “CNN host Boris Sanchez has covered hundreds of emergencies, from mass shootings and civil unrest to hurricanes and earthquakes around the world. He says this job requires him to put sentimentality aside and focus on the facts. “
If I showed a clip of the next scene I could say, “Network TV crews use a lot of lights and other equipment.”
But if I explained the video instead of telling it, I could say, “A network crew needs all of this to get a live recording, while a local television journalist could be out here with a camera, tripod and cell phone.”
If you had a video of the tornado damage, you could say, “In Princeton, Kentucky, the storm destroyed trees and houses.”
Or you can explain the video with the words “That used to be the most beautiful part of town”.
While you should explain, not narrate, the video, it’s important to keep this mantra in mind as well: words and images shouldn’t compete.
Ann Marie Seward Barry, associate professor of communication at Boston College, cited a study by the Educational Foundation of the American Association of Advertising Agencies that showed that we don’t normally understand images on television.
Barry writes: “Even when watching TV, we misunderstand about 30% of what is shown to us. Our emotional state, our way of thinking at the time, and our experience all seem to conspire against seeing things for what they really are. However, we mostly live our lives with the assumption that what we see really ‘is’, as if there were no intermediate processes. “
There is no doubt, said Barry, that visual communication dominates verbal communication. This is an important concept for television journalists. Pictures overwhelm the words they cover. But when the words shape the images, there is no verbal / visual competition.
How do viewers misunderstand a third of what they see on television? The answer could be in how they process the images they see. Once you understand the theory behind image processing, you can begin developing your own ideas for writing.
Gestalt psychology, a term derived from the German term shape or “organized wholes”, is a theory of perception. This brief examination of visual perception will help you understand the power and potential of television images, including photographic images, graphics, and animation.
Gestalt theory claims that the mind has innate organizational skills that enable us to break a whole picture down into various components without actively analyzing them. So you can see one, then the other – the faces, then the vase – without thinking too much about it.
Seeing takes place between the eye and the brain, but perception is a process that takes place entirely in the mind.
The guiding principle of Gestalt psychology is that the whole picture is seen before its components. This has particular relevance to television news and is practically the psychological equivalent of the old saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Break a story into pieces (with different focal lengths and angles) and viewers begin to understand the scene more fully. With different settings you allow the brain to analyze the story from many angles.
Probably the most important design concept is the theory that there is always an element in any visual representation that is perceived as an object. Everything else is perceived as a background. When we watch television, we clutter our screens with information that we believe will appeal to viewers. In fact, the brain is unable to process that much information.
Another guiding principle of Gestalt psychology is that when there are several possible interpretations, we automatically select the one for which we need the least additional information. We combine visual images with personal experiences. It’s a way of saying, “The viewer will see what he wants to see.”
If a news program aired a story in which protesters chanted anti-government slogans, my father might consider that story “anti-American”. I could see the same story as a demonstration of the power of protected free expression. We filter stories through our own experiences and turn first to the interpretation we understand most. We choose the interpretation that is most obvious to our own eyes and brain.
That is why it is so important that you explain the picture and not just say what I can already see. Explaining the picture means adding an understanding beyond what I perceive.
Reporters sometimes challenge me when I teach this concept by saying, “Yes, but sometimes people just hear TV and don’t see it.” It’s true. But if you just tell them what they would see if they looked at the screen, you’ve only given them one reason not to watch. Enrich your experience using the power of words and images.
In my next column, we’ll explore another crucial element of powerful storytelling, natural sound, which, I argue, not only enriches storytelling, but can also enable you to use fewer words and less airtime.
(Some of the ideas in this series are found in my college textbook, Aim for the Heart.)
Al Tompkins will expand his storytelling and writing theory in two Poynter seminars: The Poynter Producer Project and TV Power Reporting. Click the links to view the schedules, meet our top guest lecturers, and apply. Thanks to a grant from CNN, we offer 50% study grants to NABJ, NAHJ, AAJA, NAJA, and NLGJA members. Both seminars take place over three days at Poynter’s in St. Petersburg, Florida or you can participate virtually.