When you lead the visual team for a big media outlet such as The Guardian, you might have one or two things to say about multimedia journalism. Xaquin Gonzalez, the head of Guardian Visuals, gives advice to journalists who want to specialize in this type of work.
Xaquin (middle) discusses a few Guardian projects with students from Birmingham City University, together
with Paul Bradshaw and Helena Bengtsson, editor for the Data Projects team
Where can a multimedia journalist start today? Find inspiration in different visual forms, work in a team and place themselves first in the users’ shoes.
Xaquin lists the following as the best advices he can give an aspiring journalist:
- Put yourself in the user’s shoes. And the question to ask, says Xaquin, is:
Why would I waste my time consuming this story?
With the why comes the how as well.
- Edit your piece until you leave every loose, unnecessary piece of information out. The allure of giving everything we had the pleasure to discover about a story temps everybody:
As authors sometimes we get blinded by our attachment to every piece of our work, it’s really good to leave things out.
In my experience, it has been much easier to edit other people’s texts than to cut my own ruthlessly.
- Experiment with non-journalistic forms of story-telling. Xaquin names artistic installations and experimental games as possible inspirations.
A few visual project from The Guardian can serve as example of what the head of the visual team is talking about. I am going to use the visual/multimedia projects from the online version of the newspaper later.
Now I want to give two examples from two movies, each involving techniques from different visual fields to add to the story. Both capture the deep setting of what happens to the characters, giving a more first-hand impression than the traditional third person narrative.
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach hallucinates when isolated in the jungle by the other members of the small island community. The hallucination scenes gain strength from using video games like techniques, which also makes them very familiar to a number of viewers.
Edward Norton’s monologue in The 25th Hour stays memorable because of the technique used. Such monologues come from a strong theatre tradition. The images inserted give a documentary-style view of what the character is talking about.
Journalists can approach their video projects the same way, combining techniques from different fields. We can study and experiment until we can bend that technique to the needs of reporting or visualising our stories.
- How are you going to set the narrative structure? Xaquin says:
Really think about the narrative structure, like non-linear storyline in a linear story form (Memento, Rashomon, Reservoir Dogs), or a linear storyline in a non-linear story form (most timeline-based step-by-step guides).
Let us go back to The 25th Hour (spoiler alert).
What director Spike Lee does here is take the last day in this guy’s life before he goes to prison for drug dealing. The character spends time with his friends, tries not to think about the next day, and then get a lift with his dad to prison. Despite going with a very linear type story (what a certain man does before getting locked away for a few years), the storyline is filled with scenes from the recent past, showing how the character got here.
Also, Spike Lee twists the whole plot with the 25 hour of the day: what if his father did not take him to jail, but across the border, in Mexico, how will this choice change his life?
I have talked to a few people about this movie and some of them do not agree the man accepts his fate and goes to jail. They believe he actually goes for the alternative. I remember it otherwise.
Interrogative techniques of seeding the question in a non-evident way are also to be taken into consideration.
- Know what you want your work to show. As Xaquin explains:
Think of the purpose, the mission of your work. Is it to reveal something hidden to a general audience? Or do you want to help a community heal through storytelling? At any rate, don’t think the story belongs to you, but to the audience or the subjects, you’re the messenger.
This brings us to the necessity of being impartial and not bending a story as to express what we think is right. We, as journalists, are reporting, not fabricating stories or filling gaps with what we think should be there.
It is the reason why you are required to have as many sources as possible, and at least 3. Your reporting needs to be accurate and cover all sides of the story so it makes sense to your readers/users.
- Team work makes the difference. Xaquin explains why:
If you want a nuanced, multi-layered, rich, visual experience, you need multiple skills. You’re likely not going to have them all. And no skill should be held as more important than another.
So being democratic in your team approach is also an absolute must.
A good example to illustrate Xaquin’s words on this is the Unafordable country project. The Data team collected and provided the information, they found the actual story, which the visual team brought to life with their work. Would any of the two sides of this project worked if the two teams did not work together?