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Digital Video Journalism: The Pew International Journalism Conference

by Dimitri Devyatkin Wednesday, May. 23, 2001 at 12:36 PM
devyatkin@earthlink.net 718 832 1242

Report on the Pew Journalism/Columbia Univ. Journalism conference about DV (digital video) production and distribution; analysis of media spin on issues of Globalization and Yugoslavia.

ERR_4_20_01 DV Journalism

The Strawman's Revenge - IMC's E-zine Of Media Analysis
Digital Video Journalism:
   The Pew International Journalism Conference

      By Dimitri Devyatkin

  At the Pew Journalism/Columbia Univ. Journalism conference on DV (digital video), an independent-minded videographer discovers just how small the corporate version of DV revolution is: smaller cameras mean smaller crews, and a more "authentic" look and feel for the same old slant and spin. With examples drawn from DV productions on Globalization and Yugoslavia.

Only The Camera is Smaller!
A Corporate Coming-of-Age Event

May 10, 2001

I just came off two days, May 4 & 5, at the prestigious Pew International Journalism conference, dedicated to international news coverage and especially use of the DV (digital video) camera and the Web, themes close to the heart of video makers everywhere.

The venue was Columbia School of Journalism, in Manhattan, a bastion of liberal journalism, and the institution that prepares brave reporters to go forth in the name of truth, justice and American journalism. This conference was Columbia's and the Pew's big hoopla splash of seriously coming of age for DV small camera video journalism and Web-based distribution of content.



Figures of great influence were "hip" to the new technology and its possibilities, but minimized the democratizing features.


Speaking at the conference were figures of great influence in our world, such as Tom Bettag, Executive Producer of ABC's "Nightline" and David Fanning, Executive Producer of WGBH's "Frontline", who gave the keynote speech. I was duly impressed by the big guns, and how well spoken they were. However, I felt a distinct drift on a number of issues. The executives were "hip" to the new technology and its possibilities, but they seemed to be trying to minimize the democratizing features, not allowing new voices and new points of view into the editorial decisions. The low cost of DV cameras was stressed, but no one ever mentioned that these cameras could serve a different constituency.



There was no mention of IMC, FreeSpeech.org or any other non-mainstream news organization.


The DV revolution was described and glorified, but all in the context of "We're the Big Boys, and if you don't work with us and work the way we do, you're left out." There was no mention of IMC (Indymedia.org), FreeSpeech.org or any other non-mainstream news organization. The main advantage of the new equipment is it makes staff downsizing easier. Instead of parachuting in a crew of 20 for a hot news event, like covering the Marines landing on the beach in Somalia, now a single camera operator can be parachuted in to achieve the same results. They don't even need to pay for a sound person.



There is no questioning the sensational focus.


News producers carry these little DV cameras with them, and capture off-the-cuff footage that gets included on the nightly news reports. For example, a reporter woke up in her hotel room to the shaking of an earthquake, and the footage she recorded on her mini-DV camera made the evening news. There is no questioning the accepted catechism of focusing only on sensational stories.

The old bugaboo of unacceptable technical specs of handheld cameras, a major barrier to freelancers in the early days of portable video, is now a thing of the past. Today there are no technical requirements except that the image is viewable.



No one complained that we're hearing the very same voices on all those varied platforms. Soon we'll have Chicago Tribune reporters' voices coming out of our toasters, and nowhere a contrary word.


As for questions of distribution, all presenters came from large corporate systems, all supported by advertising revenue, so that was the only possible means of distribution conceived of. When told of the service www.webwasher.com that provides software to "wash" all advertising off your computer screen, speeding the downloads of your web pages, one journalist's response was, "Well, I have to pay my mortage somehow." No one complained that we're hearing the very same voices on all those varied platforms. Soon we'll have Chicago Tribune reporters' voices coming out of our toasters, and nowhere a contrary word. They'll own stations on every TV, cable, Internet, newspapers and radio wherever you turn. Their sharpest investigative reporting using all their possibilities came up with a scathing multi-platform, highly promoted special on an issue affecting every citizen in the country, airport delays.

Nightline's Tom Bettag described how "Foreign news used to be dominated by white rich guys" for whom a foreign assignment was a perk among Ivy League school buddies, and they edited their stories to match. As a working class guy, Bettag told how he was originally put off by international stories, but said, "It's a myth that the US public doesn't care about foreign news. American television is off the mark." As journalists, ABC News claims a kind of moral high ground, showing "objective" material, which they verify as true. They prefer to get a story before its cut, to see the raw footage and make a vetting assessment.

The closing workshop, with Tom Kennedy from the WashingtonPost.com photo portal and Mike Moran of MSNBC.com was the most informative. These two sites are leaders in integrating interactive multimedia, text, animation, video, sound and photos, even e-mail Q&A's with experts. MSBNC has integrated videos and animated sequences right into the text of their articles. Washington Post on-line has exclusive photo essays, for example, a moving tribute to Robert F. Kennedy, narrated from a eulogy speech by his brother Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Status Quo Content

The message in the conference regarding content was momentously status quo.

Here's the predominant spin offered on two historical issues: 1) Globalization protests, 2) Yugoslavia



The program spends an exorbitant amount of screen time listening to World Bank President James Wolfensohn and his new "comrade" Bono, of the superstar rock group "U2".


1) Globalization: There were a number of sample programs shown about globalization and the issue came up often in the presentations. For example, in the Showcase Screenings section, I watched a segment of "Raising a Ruckus", produced by Josiah Hooper and Katie Galloway for KQED San Francisco, documenting protests at the World Bank meeting in Prague in 2000. I didn't get to see the entire program, so my remarks only concern the segment shown and the producer's words afterwards. The program shows the Prague demo's, with breathless, on-the-fly interviews, and peaceful, constructive demonstrators, with a sprinkling of red-lighted shots of windows being broken for visual stimulation. The program spends an exorbitant amount of screen time listening to World Bank President James Wolfensohn and his new "comrade" Bono, of the superstar rock group "U2". Bono made some valuable remarks, about how 80% of the world is living worse than before, as opposed to the top 20% who seem to be benefiting from current policies. Then his buddy Wolfensohn said he understood the demands of the protestors. He said he has befriended Bono, in an attempt to bridge the yawning gap between the World Bank and its critics.



I asked whether the producer found any respondents who made the connection between globalization and imperialism. The producer quickly cut me off with a denial.


The overall effect on the viewer after watching such mutual admiration sessions is to think, "Well, the World Bank can't be all that bad if the President can make friends with a rock star and they both favor reform." If you believe that, you might as well put away your gas masks and helmets. As Walden Bello speaking in Prague suggested, instead of submitting to the "disarmament" of so-called "reasonable dialogue" and "frank consultation" with those who benefit from the status quo, demonstrators should attack the "fortresses and earthworks" of the global economic system, but that was not in this tape.

I asked the question of whether the producer found any respondents who made the connection between globalization and imperialism, to see the historical context that World Bank and IMF might be seen as the same forces as US Marine gunboats. The producer quickly cut me off with a denial, saying they interviewed every articulate protestor and found no one with such a point of view.

The keynote speaker, David Fanning of "Frontline" presented an exquisitely shot segment of an upcoming program shot by Frontline's David Murdoch with journalist Bill Finnegan, of "The New Yorker". The program lovingly documents a village in Bolivia, where the people built wells and water systems with their own hands, but are now being forced to pay for home water use, because the government privatized the national water system. Villagers throughout the country launched angry protests and a harsh government crackdown ensued. The new foreign entity, to which the peasants have to pay for water is named "International Water". An activist from the US in Bolivia showed people how to use the Internet to find the owner of International Water. It is the American firm, Bechtel.



This Bolivian story is told only in the context of Bolivia.

I asked the pesky question about whether the connection would be made with Bechtel's long time role as a US military contractor.

The answer was "No".


However, this Bolivian story is told only in the context of Bolivia and the particulars in that country. I asked the pesky question about whether the connection would be made with Bechtel's long time role as a US military contractor, particularly in Vietnam and other countries. The answer was "No". I asked Fanning directly whether content decisions on Frontline are ever influenced by interests of the funding organizations, and got a brisk denial. At least 7 people in the audience later came up to me privately and thanked me for the question, openly stating their disbelief of Fanning's last answer about funding. For example, Chubb Insurance Group is a major Frontline supporter, and it is not hard to imagine that they or their board members might be Bechtel stockholders as well. Frontline is by far the most distinguished, best-funded and most visible social issue documentary series on American TV, producing excellent, hard-hitting programs. However, they stop short of confronting the class system and leave the audience with a sense of frustration and dissatisfaction, without any proposal for action after viewing the calamities presented.



Whatever your take on Yugoslavia, it seems most journalists would want to depict what both sides are saying, and note that about half the population supported the central government. You wouldn't have known it from the reports at Columbia.


2) Yugoslavia was the No.1 dramatic story for budding international journalists of the last 5 years. Young, tech-savvy stringers, with promises of airdates from Nightline or similar broadcasters, have used DV cameras to shoot high risk documentation of young Serbians flaunting the Milosovic regime in its dying days. Whatever your particular take on Yugoslavia might be, it seems most journalists would want to depict what both sides are saying, and make note that about half the population of Yugoslavia supported the central government.

You would not have known it from the numerous reports presented at Columbia. Every journalist came back with sympathetic reports on young dissidents, with nary a word about the rest of the population. Nancy Durham, a video journalist from the CBC (Canada) edited her clandestine nighttime shooting of hip young Albanian protesters in their preparations for demonstrations with a thudding homegrown rock music track. That elicited a comment from Tom Bettag that such editing is discouraged at Nightline, because it breaks down the barrier between pure objective journalism and partisan sympathetic reporting. They only allow the former, eschewing the latter.



Asked if he spoke any Serbian, he replied no.

Then I asked how could he learn what any of the other people in the country think?


Freelancer Joe Rubin described how he got up-front cash and an air ticket from Nightline to go to Serbia, in the role of a naive tourist, with his high tech DV camera disguised as home video gear. His program is titled "Belgrade's Winter of Discontent, Standing Up to Slobodan Milosevic." He was delighted all the young protestors spoke such good English, as it made his work much easier. Asked if he spoke any Serbian, he replied no. Then I asked how could he learn what any of the other people in the country think? His reply was he hadn't encountered anyone of a different point of view (all were anti-Milosevic), being escorted everywhere by the young protestors.

(Prediction: Before leaving the theme of Yugoslavia, I personally recommend to any adventurous young DV video journalist reading this, the next Yugoslavia-level news story for the coming five years is the destabilization of Ukraine and Belarus. A former industrial giant crippled with corruption, Ukraine may divide into Western Ukraine, the Crimea, and Russian-speaking Ukraine, each "finding" reasons for dispute in the near future on Russia's doorstep.)


New York City-based Dimitri Devyatkin has been an independent video producer since 1971, whose work has appeared on ABC stations, PBS, French and British television. He was a TV producer in Moscow for 5 years; until recently worked for a streaming media company in Amsterdam, then New York.

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