Visual literacy in multimedia journalism

Building on my earlier post: How do we tell stories visually?

Let me begin with still photos. I know that many photographers like to put up a photo as a stand-alone, a work that answers to itself. In an art gallery, I can appreciate that. But it’s not a story, any more than a painting is a story all by itself. There’s a story in it, but it’s not told by the image alone. (You can infer a story from a single image, but that’s usually as far as it can go.)

Move on to the photo story, an established story form in journalism (Kenneth Kobré traces its origin to Life magazine in 1936 and the form we know today to 1948). Page layout contributes much to the print photo story, but it must also have words. Not necessarily a lot of words — but it’s just not a story if we don’t understand what’s going on in the images.

I’d like to ask you to think about comic strips, comic books, manga and graphic novels. In their more detailed sequences (more detailed, that is, than a photo story), they do occasionally tell a complete story without using any words at all. But only occasionally. (Manga do this especially well.)

My point: It’s hard to tell a story without words. The visuals do a lot of the work in storytelling, but rarely can they carry the full weight of the story without help.

When we add motion, however, some of our reliance on words can be eliminated.

I was thinking about this last night as I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. The early scenes are so short, with so few words — it’s the kind of opening that leaves you totally lost when you’re a kid. (You ask your parents, “What’s happening?” and they say “Shh!”) But as you learn the grammar of film, you get more out of such terse scenes.

Then I went back to the list of seven visualization types (sketches, diagrams, images, maps, objects, interactive visualizations, stories) and started mulling over each one of them. I was thinking, for example, “When is an interactive visualization not a story?” I was thinking, “Doesn’t a diagram tell a story?”

That’s when I arrived at this idea about completeness, or fullness, of a story. Go back to a single photograph, alone on a wall, without any caption. There’s probably a story there. But I don’t know what it is.

This brings me to maps. A map alone doesn’t tell a story. Some words are needed. But an animated map can tell a story — with very few words, or maybe no words at all.

A chart or graph can tell a story with very few words. An animated graphic can sometimes tell the story more effectively. Why? It leads you through a sequence of events (Update: That link needed to be replaced). It begins with a small amount of information and builds on that. It can end with an obvious climactic event (such as a steep plunge in the stock market, or a large increase in toxic gases) that illustrates a result, a conclusion. (Learn more from one of the great online infografistas, Alberto Cairo, in an OJR interview.)

I arrived at some questions we can ask when we are planning to tell a story:

  1. Can I use any kind of images or graphics to tell this story?
  2. Can motion help tell this story? Does any kind of motion — in space, or in time — play a part in the story?
  3. How many words are really necessary? (Let’s cut out as many words as possible without losing clarity.)

Do not underestimate the role of motion in visual storytelling. Do not overestimate the role of words, whether in text or in audio.

Let’s work on editing our multimedia the way we edit a text story: Omit unnecessary words. Get to the point. If establishing a mood or a scene helps advance the story, then do it. Anything that doesn’t contribute to the actual story you’re telling right now — cut it out.

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Visual literacy: Do you have it?

There are seven visualization types, according to a demo tutorial at the e-learning course:

  1. Sketches
  2. Diagrams
  3. Images
  4. Maps
  5. Objects
  6. Interactive visualizations
  7. Stories

I found this interesting because I am fond of telling people there are five online media types:

  1. Text
  2. Photos
  3. Graphics
  4. Audio
  5. Video
  6. User interaction

(Yes, I know that’s six, but user interaction might include any or all of the others, while any of the others might exist without any significant interaction. So, um, call it five plus one.)

From my point of view, graphics can be either animated or static. Video and animation are not in the same class, as I see it. Neither do video and still photography overlap — you might disagree, but I find them to be opposites. Video is moving and alive, immersive, fluid; photography is a way of freezing the world, stopping time, making us appreciate a single instant that otherwise we might never see.

As I continued poking around at, I found a Breeze presentation (how I hate those!) in which a lecturer listed six “static” visualization fields:

  1. Art
  2. Advertising
  3. Graphic design
  4. Visual communication
  5. Information design
  6. Film

He went on later to list “interactive” visualization fields:

  1. Interaction design
  2. Game design
  3. Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  4. Medical visualization
  5. Scientific visualization
  6. Computer graphics
  7. Information visualization
  8. Human-computer interaction (HCI)
  9. Virtual reality
  10. Augmented reality
  11. Storytelling
  12. Knowledge visualization

As you might imagine, the presentation degraded after this list. Having two lists is one thing, and not a bad idea. Having 12 things on one list is not going to help people learn very well. (Talk about a need for good information design!)

In an online text called Literacy in the Digital Age, I found this —

Students who are visually literate:

1. Have working knowledge of visuals produced or displayed through electronic media

  • Understand basic elements of visual design, technique, and media.
  • Are aware of emotional, psychological, physiological, and cognitive influences in perceptions of visuals.
  • Comprehend representational, explanatory, abstract, and symbolic images.

2. Apply knowledge of visuals in electronic media

  • Are informed viewers, critics, and consumers of visual information.
  • Are knowledgeable designers, composers, and producers of visual information.
  • Are effective visual communicators.
  • Are expressive, innovative visual thinkers and successful problem-solvers.

If you’re wondering where all this is leading — so am I. But I can tell you, it’s those last three I’m very concerned about. I think the college students I see every day are pretty savvy visual consumers, but they’re not the producers I’d like them to be. They can stick things on a MySpace page, but they can’t necessarily conceive and execute a visual project. They write, but they don’t sketch.

You may want to tell me this is my job — as a journalism educator, I need to get them up to speed on this visual stuff. I won’t say you’re wrong. But they can’t even sketch.

I have no solutions yet. I’m thinking about it. Any ideas?

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It’s here! Soundslides Plus

Joe Weiss posted this about two hours ago:

It’s not just an update, it’s an entirely new version of Soundslides — the long planned pro version. New features include image movement (pan & zoom), built-in lowerthirds, thumbnail menus and the ability to create traditional (non-audio) slide shows.

Even though it will cost more than plain Soundslides, that’s okay, because the plain version “will continue to exist,” Joe wrote.

There’s a new 1.6 update on the way for the plain version. It will include individual transition control. W00t!

This announcement is a wee bit premature because you can’t actually get it yet … but almost, says Joe.

Update (May 25): Download here! This link is good only until sometime in mid-June.

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Knight News Challenge grantees announced

Adrian Holovaty has been awarded a big Knight News Challenge grant to start a new Web venture. Read all about it at his site.

A list of all winners is at the Knight Foundation site.

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Thinking Bloggers

David at Strobist kindly (I think) tagged me with the Thinking Bloggers meme. I am invited to post links to five blogs that make me think.

Well, it would be too simple to link to blogs that already appear in my blogroll, wouldn’t it? After all, the charge is not to list my favorite blogs, or the blogs with content most like my own. So here goes — and don’t expect to find a lot of multimedia or journalism in these blogs. But you might be surprised at how they make you think.

1. Mirá!
Julián Gallo’s blog comes from Argentina and is written in Spanish. Its subject matter is eclectic but usually includes at least one video per post. I see some of the coolest stuff here that I never see anywhere else! And it’s never “cool” like, “Ha ha, watch that kitten roll off the table!” Nope, it usually makes me think about new ways to do things visually.

2. Social Media
I’ve been reading intelligent commentary by JD Lasica since back in the pre-Web days when I hung out on The WeLL. He goes to more conferences than anyone else I know (maybe they just have more conferences out there in California) and reports all kinds of interesting bits and pieces from them. He often posts information related to journalism, press freedom, crowdsourcing and social networks.

3. Cinecultist (Crazy for Movies)
Sometimes I get all choked up when I read this blog because I used to live in New York and have access to all the international films and obscure independent movies and … Well, now (thanks to Netflix) it’s better than it used to be, but it’s still nothing like being CC, who just turned 30, and living in the real movie capital of the western world. Don’t expect any bland or trite reviews from Cinecultist. She doesn’t slack on movies from Hong Kong or Korea either.

4. The Storyteller
I’m going way out on a limb here, but I really do love this blog. Yasmin Ahmad is a Malaysian film director. She is very well known in Malaysia but not elsewhere, although her feature films have won several international awards. I read her blog because it encompasses her professional life — not her day job at a big advertising agency, but her true job as a storyteller. I also read it because she gets hundreds of comments that make me feel hopeful about Malaysia’s future.

5. xkcd
Okay, so it’s a comic, not a blog. Is that cheating? Randall Munroe is a science guy who works with robots, likes algorithms, and does stuff we don’t usually associate with journalism. He has a blog too, but I prefer the comic. It does, in fact, make me think. As an added bonus, it usually makes me laugh. (P.S. The current plot line started here.)

There you have it — five blogs that make me think. They don’t make my brain hurt, mind you! But they stretch my horizon beyond the little world of my work and my daily life.

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Photojournalism: American Diversity Project

The 2007 American Diversity Project is set in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It’s a photojournalism package with audio, multimedia, and traditional (silent) photo stories that documents a place.

2007 American Diversity Project
The photo work is excellent, well worth a look.

The Flash package has some very good points and a few unfortunate bits.

Good points: Single-screen interface, no pop-up windows, no scrolling. Easy to use, consistent. The interface does not interfere with the stories or your experience of viewing, listening and reading. SEPARATE HTML PAGES: This is AWESOME. It means you can bookmark, for example, Stories or Multimedia or Photographers. Each segment has its own unique URL. Too cool!

2007 American Diversity Project
Unfortunate bits: The package design is too tall for 1024 x 768 (but the width is perfect). It is only just barely too tall — but the menu and navigation for almost everything in the package is at the BOTTOM. This became increasingly frustrating for me the longer I spent in the package. The tiny overflow in height would not have been a real problem except that I had to scroll to navigate on every single segment.

The maximum dimensions my screen can accommodate at 1024 x 768: 1005 pixels in width, 588 pixels in height. According to recent stats at Browser News, about 81 percent of today’s Web page accesses show a monitor resolution of 1024 x 768. PLEASE convey this information to your designers and multimedia producers!

2007 American Diversity Project
The text has that slightly blurry problem that Flash text is prone to if you don’t make the proper choices while authoring in Flash. In other words, you don’t need to settle for fuzzy fonts in Flash! But you have to know what to do to ensure that the text is sharp and clear.

For me, the site menu had too many items on it. I would rather have seen section pages that clustered the photo work, the “about” materials, and the backgrounders.

Also, what about a map, folks? Where is Clarksdale, Mississippi?

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Cool online internship

The advertisement reads:

INTERACTIVE Help build our award-winning website. Assist with online community building, web research, interactive features, HTML coding, image/audio/video editing and writing articles and interviews.

The internship is at P.O.V. (Point-of-View), the public television series of independent non-fiction film and video. “P.O.V. films have won every coveted television and film award, including 18 Emmys, 11 George Foster Peabody Awards, eight Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Broadcast Journalism Awards, three Academy Awards, and the Prix Italia.”

P.O.V. also has a very cool Web site, where all kinds of additional material (and video) has been posted about their excellent documentaries.

P.O.V. is seeking entries of documentaries for the next TV season. The deadline is one month away.

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