When news broke about the Virginia Tech massacre April 16, 2007, some of the first video that people saw from that day didn’t come from professional broadcasters.
It came from students who had no training on how to report the news and only one piece of equipment to help them report it: a cell phone camera. For CNN and the major networks, that was good enough.
Jamal Albarghouti, a Virginia Tech graduate student from the West Bank, took cell phone video of police charging Norris Hall, complete with the sound of gunfire in the background. By the end of the day, the video was posted on CNN.com, where people viewed it more than 900,000 times.
Nancy Lane, CNN’s vice president of domestic news, told the Baltimore Sun: “Let’s face it. Right now, this material is still the best of the day in terms of capturing on video what took place.”
The video was one of the most recent examples of how major news organizations like CNN rely on citizen journalists—even poor-quality video if the story is big enough—to report the news. Homemade video is particularly appealing to stations that are cutting their news staffs.
In the old days, about the only user-generated video we saw was weather-related. Somebody would capture video of a funnel cloud during tornado season and then drop it off at the local TV station.
Today, however, many stations make it easy for people to shoot video with a cell phone camera and then upload it to the station’s website. Some stations will let you use your cell phone’s messaging service to send the video as an attachment.
User-generated video is in such demand that CNN, for example, has an entire section of its website, called the CNN I-Team Toolkit, devoted to amateur broadcasters, complete with a “toolkit” of tips on how to take great video—even if it isn’t breaking news. CNN welcomes video related to holidays, seasonal features, and topics like “show us your home office” or “tell us how you’re coping with the pollen problem.”
“Twenty years ago, video cameras were of such poor quality that it was hard to use home video on a news show,” said Jeff Crilley, a reporter for KDFW-TV Channel 4 in Dallas, Texas.
But today, he says, the difference is so slight that “if you deliver a powerful video on a slow-news day, you could be the lead story.”
He points to the story of Krissi Holman, a suburban Dallas high school senior, who was dying of bone cancer two years ago. Her classmates were concerned that she wouldn’t live to see Graduation Day. So three weeks before graduation, the entire school went to her house and held an impromptu ceremony in her bedroom.
“Hundreds of students were spilling out onto the lawn, and there was even bagpipe music,” Crilley said. “The only reason it made it onto the news was because somebody brought a video camera and taped it.”
The videographer was careful to shoot it just like the pros would have.
“There was a magic moment when the principal handed her the degree,” Crilley said. “The camera panned Krissi’s face and showed her big smile. Then she took her cap, and with all the energy she had, flung it into the air, still smiling. The person who had the camera held the image. It was lovingly captured. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
When someone called the TV station that day and said the magic words—“we have video”—Crilley jumped on the story. After his station covered it and broadcast the story, a media feeding frenzy followed. The video eventually aired nationwide.
John Easton, owner of Eastonweb Multimedia in Charlotte, North Carolina, encourages people who want publicity to shoot video of events that local TV stations, for whatever reason, won’t cover. That’s what he did when a TV crew from Australia was in Charlotte recently to film a segment at his son’s elementary school.
“I notified several press outlets well in advance so they could send a crew out,” Easton said. “I also notified the PR folks for the school system, but nobody seemed too terribly interested.”
So he grabbed his video camera, a Sony VX-2000, and covered it himself. Afterward, he emailed a press release about the event and included a link to a two-minute segment.
“I got a call from two local TV stations that wanted to use it, and even the school system’s TV station wanted it,” Easton said.
Video experts, including those who suggested tips for the CNN video “toolbox,” pass along these tips for people who want their video to be ready for prime time:
- Avoid “shaky camera syndrome.” Hold the camera steady, or use a tripod.
- More is better. Have plenty of material to work with, including lots of B-roll to add dimension and secondary footage to a story.
- Follow the “rule of thirds.” Don’t position your subject in the middle of the frame. Instead, the subject should be to the left or right of center.
- Avoid fluorescent lighting. If you must, move the action outdoors.
- Hold your shot for at least seven seconds so you have enough material. If it’s more than what a TV station needs, it can be edited.
- Use static video shots instead of pans, zooms and dissolves.
Finally, the pros caution that the best video techniques in the world are worthless if your battery is dead. So always bring an extra one.
For more tips on how to take great video, see Tom Antion’s 2-CD set called “How to Make a fortune Using Video, Even if You Don’t Have a Computer.”