You Really, Truly, Have to "Be There": Video Journalism as a Social and Material Construction

Article excerpt

News organizations are turning increasingly to video journalism as survival strategy in the era of convergence. Video journalism, the process by which one person shoots, writes, and edits video stories, represents both a socially and materially constructed form of news and adds a new dimension to daily work practices. This qualitative project examines the daily work practices of video journalists in a variety of organizational settings, including newspapers and television stations. This project found that the material requirements of video journalism have the potential to shift control of some aspects of news narrative away from journalists and toward their sources.

Video journalism is in many ways the human representation of convergent media. Although at one time there existed a division of labor within and among newsrooms, with some journalists specializing in the gathering of facts, others in the gathering of audio, and still others in the gathering of video or still images, the current environment demands that journalists do all of these things, often alone. Once limited to deployment in very small television markets and scorned as "one-man bands," video journalists now work in the largest metropolitan areas for television stations, radio networks, newspapers, and citizen activist groups.1 What happens when one person shoots, writes, narrates, edits, and, in some cases, posts those stories to the web alone? Are the adjustments limited to practice or does the product change as well?

Video Journalism's Origins

The trade press for photojournalism has covered the spread of video journalism extensively, but the topic has received less attention in the academic literature. Nevertheless, many sociological and cultural studies of journalistic practice can help contextualize this study.

"One-man bands," as they've sometimes been derisively named, have long existed in the world of local television news. Generally, singleperson newsgathering was the norm in smaller markets: journalists would shoot, write, and edit alone with the goal of eventually working their way into larger markets to work as part of a team with a video photographer and (much longer ago) sound technicians.2 Conventional television newsgathering in the United States commonly uses heavier cameras than those used by those who call themselves "MMJs" (multimedia journalists), "BPJs" (backpack journalists), "Solojos" (solo journalists), "Mojos" (mobile journalists), or, most simply and with the phrase that will be used here, "video journalists" or "VJs."3

The term video journalism can be traced to a former network television producer, Michael Rosenblum, who used it to title an adjunct course he taught at Columbia University in the late 1980s.4 Rosenblum also established a short-lived international news network using only VJs, called Video News International.5 News Photographer, the professional trade magazine for the National Press Photographers Association, started using the phrase regularly in 2005,6 and in 2006, the organization announced a new category for (solo) video journalists in its annual Best of Photojournalism contest.7

Today it is hard to find a media organization or market that is not adopting some form of video journalism. Two features distinguish its practice from other forms of news production. First, it is a singular practice, in that one person shoots, writes, and edits the entire piece. Secondly, it combines intangible, discursive practices, such as writing or interviewing, with material practices involving the body in interaction with the realtime environment.

News Practice and Narratives

The proposition that journalism is a social construction defined by human practice, hardly new, remains useful for scholarly inquiry. One approach has concentrated on the sociology of the professions and the degree to which journalists conform to group norms and ethical ideals.8 Other scholars use a critical or cultural lens, noting the ways journalists shape their practices to maintain an "interpretive community" whose work, in the words of Riegert and Olson, serves to "reinforce the legitimacy of journalists as central actors in the mediation of truth. …