Sunday, March 08, 2009

Audio journalism III: Teaching j-students about recording, editing and distribution

  • Beginning journalism students, in their first news writing classes, should be taught the basics of audio journalism and should put those basics into practice.
The concept of audio journalism takes us beyond the medium of radio and requires that we think about sound itself as an increasingly available and important tool of the journalist (as we argued in the first two essays in this series -- see Audio journalism I and Audio journalism II).

How then do we as journalism educators train our students to use this tool?

At the University of Tennessee, we are trying to turn our curriculum more toward the web and away from the traditional media forms of print and broadcasting. This is a systemic change that will not be accomplished by simply adding one or two courses on web journalism to the curriculum or even by creating a sequence of courses. Instead, it involves changing our approach in our most basic courses.

One of those basic courses is JEM 200 Introduction to news writing. This course is required of all journalism majors as the gateway course to the journalism curriculum, and it has traditionally introduced students to the concepts of good writing, AP style, attribution, the inverted pyramid and other skills necessary for a start in journalism. We are now putting more emphasis on developing skills for writing for the web -- conciseness, headlines, summaries, lists, linking, etc. -- and in the section that was once "writing for broadcast," we are now teaching the concepts of audio journalism.

Here's what we are including:
  • Audio journalism
    The importance of sound. Sound can be an excellent way to go beyond the pictures and text a reporter produces in covering a story. Sound gives voice to sources in a way that text cannot.
    Formats. We reviewed some of the formats available to audio journalists in the second post of this series. Sound can be a complement to the other reporting or it can be the dominent form of the report. The web is allowing us to develop new formats, such as the audio slide show.

  • Writing for audio
    Traditional radio formats. These forms of presentation of news and information including the drama unity broadcast story structure are still important for students to learn and use.
    New forms of writing for audio that web journalism offers. We have already referred to audio slide shows, but we also must give some attention to writing introductions that alert readers as to what they are about to hear and to describe links included with the sound stories.
    Writing scripts, questions and outlines. Most of what is broadcast in traditional media begins with and follows a script. Good scripts promote the efficient presentation of news and information, and they are likely to continue to be necessary on the web.

  • Speaking clearly
    Enunciation and beyond. In previous times, training in this area could generally be ignored by most journalists, particularly those going into print. No longer. Journalists now need to use their own voices. Their accent, grammar and pronunciation skills must be developed beyond the normal level of speaking. Their speaking habits must exclude the use of the word "like" after every third word, and they must speak with the confidence that allows them to drop the hesitant pauses, the "uhs" and the "you knows."
    Developing habits and practices that enhance the clarity of sound and the quality of reporting. We might jokingly call this our "radio voice," but it is no longer a joke. Journalists -- all journalists -- must be heard and understood.
    Acquiring the skill of the short, concise question. Asking well-formed, concise questions -- and then shutting up -- is a rare skill, but it is one that should be developed by all of our students.

  • Recording
    Tools and equipment. Basic recording equipment is inexpensive and simple to use. Every journalism student must have some kind of ditigal recorder and must be aware of its capacity.
    The importance of sound quality. Sound quality does not have to be an obsession because of the good equipment that is available. Still, journalism students must learn to make their equipment produce clear, understandable sound on all occasions.
    Ambient sound and music. The qualities of ambient sound and music can enhance the reporting. They are special products of audio journalism that cannot be duplicated by any other medium.

  • Editing
    Putting audio files together for presentation. Editing audio can be as simple or as complex as the reporter and editor choose to make it. Some audio reporters, such as NPR's science reporter Robert Krulwich, develop their stories through complex and highly sophisticated editing techniques (see Darwin's Very Bad Day, for example). Our goals for beginning journalism students are more modest. Simply producing a clear, coherent recording would be enough.
    Multiple tracks. Student should have some basic understanding of mixing sound tracks.
    Importance of beginning and ending. Writing good introductions and planning the sound story from beginning to end is basic to good audio journalism.
    Standard constructions and techniques. Students should learn the standard techniques of audio editing as the well as the terms, such as fades, cross-fading, establish music, segue, transition, voice out, music up, and voice wrap.
Covering these areas in just a few weeks of a writing course is ambitious. Not all of these subject will be areas in which the students can acquire any mastery, but their introduction and practice can show students their importance.

Note: I post the lecture notes for the lecture section of JEM 200, and at this writing I have posted the notes for the first of three lectures based on these essays about audio journalism. Two more sets of lecture notes are planned.

Audacity

The one piece of software that students should learn for audio journalism is Audacity.

While editing sound has a wide array of possibilities, it has been rendered simple and easy by Audacity, a free and downloadable piece of software from SourceForge.net. Audacity comes with a set of tutorials, the basics of Audacity can be grasped in just a few minutes by those who simply use the software. Audacity allows users to add and delete portions of a soundtrack and to place new soundtracks into a file. Its visual dashboard (below) includes all of the tools for basic sound editing, and it is likely that student will be able to learn the program to create audio files very quickly.



Podcasting

Podcasting is a term sometimes used for the general idea of audio journalism, but in reality it has a much more specific meaning. Podcasting is a means of distributing audio files through RSS (really simple syndication) feeds. Students should be taught the basics of using this system for distributing the audio files they produce, but we will refrain from going into details about it until a later post.

Read the two previous essays in this series on audio journalism:

Audio journalism I: Defining the field - the power and importance of sound

  • A clarion call for journalism instructors to think beyond the strictures of radio and to teach audio journalism -- using sound as a reporting tool -- to all of their students.

Audio journalism II: Forms and formats

  • Creative journalists can use the tool of sound as an effective in their reporting. They can start with traditional formats, but the web will allow them to develop their own.

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# ^ Dionysius Thrax. τέχνη γραμματική (Art of Grammar), ς´ περὶ στοιχείου (6. On the Sound):

σύμφονα δὲ τὰ λοιπὰ ἑπτακαίδεκα· β γ δ ζ θ κ λ μ ν ξ π ρ σ τ φ χ ψ. σύμφοναι δὲ +λέγονται+, ὅτι αὐτὰ μὲν καθ᾽ ἑαυτὰ φωνὴν οὐκ ἔχει, συντασσόμενα δὲ μετὰ τῶν φωνηέντων φωνὴν ἀποτελεῖ.
Consonants are the remaining seventeen: b, g, d, z, th, k, l, m, n, x, p, r, s, t, ph, ch, ps. They are called consonants because they don't have a sound on their own, but when arranged with vowels, they produce a sound.

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