Looking Back Can Yield Great Stories


By Dave Davis

Sometimes we toss around the phrase “in-depth” way too much, but the story I am going to tell you about does indeed fit that description, and maybe it will give you and your kids some story ideas you may not have previously considered.

We called the feature “Ten Years Ago” because that was when the events discussed took place at our school. This is a great technique, focusing on the anniversary of important events, and looking at them with fresh perspective. In this case, the story was indeed a sad one.

The 2000-01 school year at Hillcrest was the worst, in many ways, that our school ever experienced. We lost four students, one each quarter, two by traffic accidents, two by their own hands.

A decade later, HTV reporter Paige Moffis and photographer Jessica Larson asked people who experienced that horrible year to talk about its impact on their lives, and on those around them. They found three former students who were willing to talk, a former coach, and finally a former school counselor who recalled how she helped kids deal with each death, and about the cumulative effect the losses had on students.

After nailing down the interviews, Paige and Jessica, in their research of the story, found newspaper clippings about the first death of a very popular football player, and actually shot a stand-up from the location of the crash that took his life. This took the viewer to the scene of the incident, an important technique you see all the time on the news.

Photographs added lots of emotion, as did the subtle use of music. The soundtrack behind the images really helped establish the tone that the girls were going for as they focused on serious, sobering events that happened a decade before.

As the story unfolded, I believe the strong writing and representational visuals of students huddling and consoling one another, slightly out of focus, really added to the understanding of the awful events we experienced during that terrible year. One line by Paige, about losing the fourth student, along with the visuals over it, still gives me chills: “Now another chair was empty.”

The production process for this serious, challenging, and yes, in-depth piece, included techniques to consider when you produce stories like this, about meaningful events in the past:

Choose a worthy topic

The best thing to do before you ever shoot a second of video is to thoroughly discuss your topic to see if it merits the kind of research and treatment you want to give it. Nothing is worse than a five-minute story you could have covered in two minutes.

Try to get people re-live the moment

It may sound cruel, but it isn’t. People who agree to talk to you about a past event simply may need your prompting to help them recall what it was like back when the story took place. When you can get them back in the moment, you will get the best insights, and the best sound bites.

Use photographs

You can get creative with angles, with zooms and pans, and even with color, but ultimately, a picture really is worth a thousand words. Always look for photographs when covering stories about people.

Take viewers to the scene

Do not settle for a stand-up on the school library. Go the extra mile (or ten) to bring authenticity and impact to your story. Take us to the scene of the incident when possible.

Be creative with images and sounds

You cannot actually go back in time, so the images, the sounds, and yes, occasionally the music you use have to evoke the appropriate atmosphere for your story. Think about how you can represent, not re-enact, the period you are covering. See a “Dateline” or “48 Hours Mystery” for examples of how creative editing and photography brings stories from the past to life.

Write and Re-Write

The writing will be extremely important. Write the script, including the sound bites, before you edit the video. If you take the time to do this first, the actual editing of the story will go much faster.

Less is more

Great sound bites will allow you to write less, because the people you interview will tell the story for you. So have some great conversations and your script will be that much easier to write.

See the results–watch the “Ten Years Ago” news story.

I encourage you to take on projects like the “look-back” story. It can certainly take several weeks to produce, but the results can be extremely rewarding, and leave a huge impact on your viewers.

Dave Davis started “HTV Magazine” at Hillcrest High School in Springfield, MO in the fall of 1989, and still advises the award-winning program today. He is the director of the Academy of Scholastic Broadcasting’s teacher workshops, and contributes to training DVDs produced by ASB (www.scholasticbroadcasting.com).

Michael Hernandez

Michael has taught Film/Video Production and Broadcast Journalism since 1999, and advises the Pacemaker-winning Mustang Morning News. He regularly presents seminars on journalism, video and technology-related topics, and is a former JEA National Broadcast Adviser of the Year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cinehead

Michael Hernandez has 52 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Hernandez

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