MP: Elements of good Multimedia story telling

At its simplest, a multimedia story combines different elements that complement one another to make the story more interesting, complete or compelling.

What is a multimedia story and why multimedia?

Multimedia storytelling can be defined as the art of conveying a narrative/story through multiple forms of media, such as text, audio, graphics, video and still photographs interactivity presented on a Web site in a nonlinear format in which the information in each medium is complementary, not redundant. Nonlinear means that rather than reading a rigidly structured single narrative, the user chooses how to navigate through the elements of a story. Not redundant means that rather than having a video clip of a story accompanied by a text version that essentially tells the same story, different parts of a story are told using different media. The key is using the media form – video, audio, photos, text, animation – that will present a segment of a story in the most compelling and informative way.

This approach (multimedia) provides new opportunities for telling stories, but also raises new challenges.

Why multimedia?

Multimedia stories are  interactive in a way that single-medium stories aren’t. By incorporating various types of media, you are creating a story that your readers can explore. This interactivity is an important feature that allows you to engage your audience and seek their input and feedback. Inserting clickable quizzes, comment boxes, and graphics provides an exciting way to get the audience to participate in the story experience.

It is important to note that not all stories make good multimedia stories.  The best multimedia stories are multi-dimensional (versatile). They include action for video, a process that can be illustrated with a graphic (e.g., “how tornadoes form” or “how this new surgery works”), someone who can give some pithy quotes for video or audio, and/or strong emotions for still photos and audio. Most multimedia stories require that the reporter go into the field to report the story face-to-face with sources, rather than doing a story entirely by telephone.

How to create a multimedia story

Identify a story. Consider the different specific stories you can tell, and select one that is well-suited to multimedia. The best multimedia stories are multifaceted.  In order to have a successful multimedia story, it needs to have several elements that come together to play an important role.

Create a storyboard. Building the storyboard of a multimedia story requires nonlinear thinking. Instead of identifying the “beginning,” “middle,” and “end” of your story, break it down further into constituent parts such as who, what, when, where, why and how. Who are the main characters in your story? What is the event or situation? What is the context? Understanding these constituent parts will help you to decide what media are necessary to your story.

Choose your media. Each medium has specific strengths, and depending on the skills and knowledge held by your team, you may find yourself leaning on some media more than others. When creating your storyboard, identify which medium can be used for which constituent part of your story.

Choosing the best elements for  multimedia story

As you plan your multimedia story, you have to decide which tools would best tell each part of the story. Here are some guidelines for choosing different media.

  • Video to show action (teens skateboarding, high school wrestling, a chef cooking), capture strong quotes (witnesses at an accident site, a cancer survivor talking about her ordeal) or take viewers somewhere they wouldn’t have access to (behind the scenes at a concert) or places they would want to visit (a Disneyland ride, the World Cup). It however has limited ability to show processes or explain complexity.
  • Still photos to capture and emphasize a strong emotion or a key moment in time (a mother reunites with a long lost child, someone talks about losing their home). Pictures still are often worth a thousand words. Photos are often more dramatic and don’t go by as quickly as video. Still photos used in combination with audio also highlight emotions. Panorama or 360-degree photos, combined with audio, also immerse a reader in the location of the story.
  • Audio to capture compelling quotes – bringing the voices of characters into the story (a veteran talking about the battlefield, a mother talking about a child) or telling “ambient” sound (the din in a crowded restaurant, music, stadium cheers, construction noise, gunfire).  Good audio makes still photos and video seem more intense and real. Bad audio makes video seem worse than it is, and it detracts from the drama of still photos. Whenever possible, try to add the transcript of the audio.
  • Graphics to show complicated processes (how a bill moves through Parliament, how a new surgery works) or complex data (employment figures, population percentages in districts) in an easy-to-understand format. Graphics can also take you where cameras can’t go. Great way to illustrate processes that explain how something works.
  • Text can be used to describe the history of a story or a process, or to provide accounts of an event. Text often is used when the information cannot be conveyed with other media.

What isn’t a multimedia story?

Sites such as CNN, the Washington Post, NPR, BBC and MSNBC.com are multimedia sites. They have text. They have video clips. They have audio. They have still photographs. They have interactive graphics. But the main stories on these sites are often linear and produced in either text or video or audio to stand alone. The text is often augmented with photos, as it would be in a newspaper or magazine. The video is usually the same version that appears on television. Rarely are video, text, still photos, audio and graphics integrated into the same story. Usually, they are stand-alone stories, each produced for a different media about the same subject, that are then aggregated into multimedia packages.

CNN thumbnailCNNWashington Post thumbnailWashington Post
MSNBC thumbnailMSNBCNPR thumbnailNPR 

BEFORE WE FORGET – ALWAYS REMEMBER TO: Create a media bank. Just as it is important to create and maintain an archive of your stories, so too is it important to archive your multimedia content. If your organization is holding a major event or conducting work in your community, be sure to take pictures, make recordings, and save them. Once these events have taken place, you won’t be able to go back and gather content—so gather material while you can. You might not have discovered a purpose for the content yet, but it will be a vital resource for your future storytelling work.

Here are a few examples of how different news outlets have used different media to tell stories in ways they could not have told them even a few years ago:

Good use of video and photo. There’s very little text with this Orange County (Calif.) Register package on the foreclosure crisis in that area. The photographer wrote a short intro to the story, then used video to take readers on a ride on the “foreclosure bus,” in which potential buyers toured foreclosed houses. The package includes a photo slideshow of foreclosed homes that have been abandoned and vandalized, to finish painting the picture of the foreclosure crisis in this California community. Notice that the paper also included links in the package to related text stories in the Register. http://www.ocregister.com/articles/photos-17815-slideshow-gallery.html#article-comments

Good use of audio and interactive elements. First-person accounts can be very compelling. In this example, the New York Times lets people who suffering from 34 different medical conditions talk in their own words about how they live with their conditions. Several people are interviewed for each condition and each has his or her own audio slideshow: simple pictures with the subject’s voice. There is no narration; the reporters are invisible. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/09/10/health/Patient_Voices.html

Good use of maps/text/graphs. The Miami Herald offers several relatively simple graphics to help readers grasp complex issues in a visual, easy-to-understand way.

There are many examples on the newspaper’s site, but check out this multi-page series of graphs that show readers how the recession affected South Florida in 2007; this timeline, which tells the history of the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, with pictures of key players along the way; and this graphic that shows the different ways officials were trying to stop the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, with details on each method.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune documented how Hurricane Katrina inundated the city in 2005 with a more ambitious graphic. The interactive map can be found at http://www.nola.com/katrina/graphics/index.ssf?flashflood . A range of multimedia and interactive projects about Katrina can be found at the Times-Picayune’s page dedicated to the historic hurricane and its aftermath, at http://www.nola.com/katrina/.

This post was originally part of an online course by ICFJ Anywhere, which supports journalists worldwide with free training on a range of topics. Courses are offered in a variety of languages including English, Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and French. For the latest ICFJ Anywhere course offerings, click here.

Excerpts were also taken from Taken from Five Steps to Multimedia Storytelling, a self-directed course by Jane Stevens at Poynter NewsU.

Other sources include: Tutorial: Multimedia Storytelling: Learn The Secrets From Experts

How to Incorporate Multimedia into Your Storytelling

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