Teaching Examples


Visual literacy in multimedia journalism
May 25, 2007, 2:43 pm
Filed under: education, graphics, ideas, storytelling

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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4 Comments so far
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Grok!

Comment by Megan Taylor

Mindy,

I think the point here is that “motion” is needed to tell a story. That my be a “motion” of images as in a film, slideshow, etc. It may also be a motion of thought such as a graph of data over time. This type of graph has a starting point, intermediate points and an ending point, thus showing some type of motion.

With a single photograph, the motion must be inferred in order for it to portray a story. Some photos aren’t meant to tell a story at all, but rather just capture a moment within the movement of time.

Comment by Eric

My favorite examples are two scenes in “Citizen Kane” after he tries to mold his talentless wife into an opera singer. One is as she’s singing, the camera pans up above the stage to two stagehands on a catwalk. One glances at the other and holds his nose. The other is when the reviewer holds up a string of paper dolls he’s carved from his program. Maybe there’s a reading assignment in scripts (not the computer kind). One of the best texts on storytelling I ever bought myself was a book with three screenplays by Woody Allen.

Comment by Ron Sylvester

Eric, you’re certainly correct: Motion is essential to any story. We move either forward or backward in time in every story. In a photograph, sometimes stopping motion is precisely what conveys the story.

Comment by Mindy McAdams




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