4 ways to tell video stories about difficult topics

A journalist from The Oregonian newspaper offers tips on how to report visually on complicated or hard-to-shoot subjects.

Video and visual awards

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

Teresa Mahoney, a video journalist at The Oregonian newspaper, faced a challenge: how to tell the story of threats to steelhead habitats in Columbia River tributaries.

Solution? She selected a small set of representative data—the story of three fish tagged and tracked by scientists via radio transmitters.

Mahoney even named the fish to tell the story of their migration from the sea up the Columbia to a river whose water levels had dropped drastically because of agricultural irrigation.

“Humanize it with characters,” she says.

The story—part of a Ragan Training presentation “Visual journalism: Simple tricks for telling human stories in visually appealing ways”—exemplifies how she solved a problem that is also common in the numbers-heavy world of corporate storytelling.

Her work encompasses everything from animated investigative explainers to social media-friendly breaking news and feature videos.

Here are tips, issues and problems that can make or break video storytelling:

1. Use motion—and emotion.

Mahoney produced an amusing and inspiring video about a strongman Santa Claus—a corrections officer named Albie Mushaney who was once more than 100 pounds overweight and suffering from diabetes. After a warning from his doctor, he started lifting weights and was competing for the title of the world’s strongest man.

The videographer’s approach might seem obvious: Head to the gym with merry Kris Kringle and shoot him deadlifting 655 pounds.

Yes, Mahoney got the workout shots, but she wanted a deeper story. “Big Bad Santa” Mushaney was a human beer barrel. What foods did he devour to fuel his mighty feats? (Twelve eggs a day, for starters.) How did he groom that groovy beard? (It’s called beard oil.)

“We spent a day in his life, basically,” Mahoney says. “We filmed him making breakfast and eating breakfast on camera. He was like, ‘This is a little weird.’ I was like, ‘No, don’t worry about it. We’ll be fine.’”

There was also deep emotion, as when Mushaney wept as he recalled his father, who had died recently.The first posting of the video got 300,000 views, 2,400 shares and 2,300 reactions, Mahoney says.

Here’s another video she was planning; it’s about a Portlander who raps about his cats.

2. If you lack current visuals, find alternative approaches.

Some dramatic stories are hard to tell, because the action is all in the past. This happens to Mahoney all the time.

As Mahoney retells it, the reporter tends to say something like: “I’ve got this great subject. This person had cancer, and they overcame it. And it was the result of Oregon’s air pollution.”

She replies, “That’s a really compelling story. I’d love to tell that. What are we going to see, though?”

“Oh, well, they already went through the chemo.”

“We don’t really have a whole lot to show there,” she says.

Yet there are ways to tell such stories. One story detailed a woman’s allegations that, years before, she had been sexually harassed by her high school teacher, Mahoney says.

Mahoney offers several solutions for such cases:

  • Use animation and graphics to set the mood and tone of the story.
  • Shoot a powerful interview that describes what happened, capturing the woman’s emotion.
  • Artifacts (such as documents or newspaper clippings) can help tell the story. In the school video, Mahoney got the former student read on camera a letter she had written to school officials at the time of the alleged harassment.

Also, when you can, vet your subjects in advance.

“If you have 20 people to choose from, call all of them, if you have to, and find out who’s going through that thing right now,” Mahoney says.

3. To communicate sprawling topics, narrow your focus.

Sometimes stories are highly complicated, with too much information or data to cram into a few minutes. Mahoney faced this when she was assigned to do a video to accompany reporting on salmonella.

In such cases, don’t cover the entire sprawling topic. “Focus on one thing,” she says. She also seeks to create evergreen content that can be recycled next time the topic is covered.

4. Get creative to overcome lack of access.

The Oregonian conducted a watchdog investigation into how National Guard armories became toxic: The firing of guns in indoor shooting ranges spread tiny particles of lead.

Mahoney couldn’t get access to an armory, yet she had to come up with a video. She produced two.

She went to a shooting range and shot a super slow-motion video of bullets leaving a handgun. This footage was released on its own and as part of the video about the investigative report.

How long should a video be? One tends to hear that they should run between 30 and 60 seconds. Mahoney, however, says a compelling story could run up to 10 minutes.

She says, “I think a video can just be as long as it’s supposed to be.”

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