War, Crashes and Philosophy REVIEWED

An update on my previous draft

Sam Wallace
Dec 6, 2018 · 11 min read

When presenting a narrative in the contemporary media landscape, the option of platforms is bountiful. However, each platform comes with its details, technicalities and limitations. In this essay I will be analysing a radio documentary, interactive image map and a video for social media to analyse their strengths and weaknesses.

The first media artefact is a news video, designed for social media, by the media channel NowThis News. The video is a report on Sophia Floersh’s formula 3 crash in China and follows a similar narrative structure to a medium-form written article, known as an inverted pyramid. This structure dictates that the most important information is placed at the top of the article and supplementary details, such as quotes and tweets, are placed further down. This is so the narrative remains intact even if the lower details are removed.

The video starts with showing the clip and then a brief explanation of what happened, this exploits the advantage of video medium by revealing the shocking clip first to draw viewers in before revealing context. This is an important tool for social media as users are very active and can scroll away from content easily. Despite this, it still employs the simple opening statement used in shortform articles to portray character, movement and setting.

Interestingly, the video uses no narration and opts for sombre music instead, this furthers the sad address of the piece and is an immersion tool used to reflect an emotion onto the audience. However, sound is a rather ineffective option for social video because social media sites mute videos when scrolling, in fact 85 percent of videos on Facebook are watched without sound. However, some videos use graphics urging users to turn the sound on, common in videos from The Lad Bible that involve animal noises. The video opts not to ask to put the sound on given the distressing nature of the clip and therefore uses text to portray the story. The first sentence therefore mimics a traditional headline, establishing movement — A driver suffered a terrifying crash — and invite users to view the piece without the use of sound.

A Lad Bible video with a “Better with sound” graphic

This trick encourages users to stay watching the video for more information rather than switch off and just listen but also personally reflect on the narrative. The video uses a very objective tone, despite being on a platform that is not regulated for such matters; not using a narrator who would naturally put stress on certain words and therefore reveal a certain subjectivity removes any unnecessary mediation from the text. Users are actively , albeit subconsciously, engaging with the text by reading themselves.

While not employing a narrator, the video does establish narrative setting and movement by highlighting certain words yellow. Colour is essential to visual presentation and is a simple method of signify differences or important information. The video employs this tactic but with a simple two-colour system which is easy on the eye and presents information well.

The video implements narrative techniques well and uses its medium to its advantage, but the main issue of this piece is that it adds nothing to the Sophia Floersh crash narrative. Basic questions such as: How did the crash happen? Did the race continue? Will the team support her through her surgery? Are left unanswered and leaves the piece empty given that the news had been reported by other outlets earlier. To avoid this problem, the video could expand into the wider narrative, a key question found on forums was Why is a car careening across the track? The audience want to know how the car got out of control. The initial impact, which caused the crash, happened moments before and was caught on video but very few news outlets were using this which would have been a unique detail to add. Editorially speaking, the video’s owner could have refused usage of the clip but even adding text — Floersh collided with Daruvala earlier and was sent down the track — would have put interesting further detail on the narrative.

A much wider narrative that could be tapped into is the increasing safety standards of open-wheel formula racing. Nobody has died in formula three racing since 1993 and many drivers walk away from large crashes unharmed, for example Nico Hulkenberg’s crash at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix a few weeks ago. On a similar theme, 17-year-old driver Billy Monger lost both of his legs in a formula 3 crash but continues to race and is the subject of a recent BBC documentary. This story could be linked given it is the same championship and is a positive story that would allow the piece to end on a light note. Delving into this subject is probably too long for this medium but a quick statistic would certainly make the audience think and give an original point to the video. If this crash had happened as little as five years ago, its pretty certain it would have killed her. A harrowing statement that would leave a chilling end to the piece but start a discussion in the audience.

The second is a radio documentary, in recent years the appeal of podcasts has led to a surge in engaging and clever radio documentary production and shifted the BBC radio’s focus to such endeavours. BBC Radio 4’s My Life As…(2018) is a documentary series following comedian Andy Zaltzman as he spends a week living by the rules an ancient school of philosophy. The documentary employs a “Fish out of water” character, Zaltzman, which drives the movement of the plot throughout the week. Bill Nichols identifies this narrative structure as “Interactive”(1991:33) due to the narrator engaging directly with the subject of the documentary and is derived from “a desire to make the filmmaker’s perspective more evident”. Nichols’ work was focussed at film and television mediums but Senior lecturer at University of London, Tim Crook argues that “this theorising was wholly relevant to the radio form”(1999: 207) and sections of the documentary aren’t too dissimilar to the TV documentaries of Louis Theroux.

Zaltzman’s journey is intrinsic to the documentary’s narrative, as Guy Starkey highlights “The reporter presents a core narrative that is extended by interviewees” (2014: 210). The documentary develops this further by using a non-expert presenter, Starkey states “Complicated or unfamiliar concepts may be interpreted by the reporter” (2014:210) but since Zaltzman is also learning with the audience, most of the concepts are explained by the interviewees and then put into practise by the presenter. This narrative design details concepts in an anecdotal form, furthering the documentary’s aim of “assist[ing] readers in their own reading of the discourse” (Starkey: 210) and presenting a narrative that is easier to relate to. As Jad Ambumrad states “The best stories connect experience to something larger” (2010:??) Zaltzman’s week is an anecdotal narrative that portrays a perspective of how to live your life that may be completely different to listeners. By presenting it in the form of a week in the life of Zaltzaman, the documentary explains a thousand-year-old philosophy in a personal medium that’s “shared human to human” (Abumrad: 2010). The documentary could have been presented by expert Name in an observational style but would likely not have the same effect on the audience.

The documentary has a solid linear structure which sets three key techniques at the beginning, analyses each one thoroughly and then reflects on them at the end. Starkey notes that “[the] radio documentary lends itself to division into sections” (209) and it serves as a clear structure that is easy to follow. This is important in radio as listeners do not always tune in at specific times, therefore the piece must adhere to late tuners. “Change of section provides opportunity for the sign-posting” (210) says Starkey who muses that sign-posting is “essential to programme coherence” (210?). the effective use of the rule of three, a common literary technique that suggests three is the most engaging number of characters, is a simple structure for the audience to follow. The documentary, however, uses this rule differently by having the narrative’s objectives split into three as a measure of success, which are evaluated throughout the piece which “restates the purpose of narrative” and “draws interim conclusions” (Starkey:209) displaying a steady movement of learning and ties up each episode nicely.

Sound is integral to a radio documentary; as Canadian Chris Brookes states “What radio does best is stimulate the imagination” (Biewen and Dilworth: 2010:17) and it is therefore important to implement sound effectively throughout the piece. My Life As… uses this effectively in areas, a running bath can be heard as Zaltzman explains the stoic ritual of taking cold baths. The bath sounds then move from being background setting into the movement of the piece as Zaltzman then jumps into the bath. At other points though, the sound is not implicated very well; An interview with two Saracens rugby players takes place at the stadium, a decision that seems editorially sound and adds an immersive ambience to the feature. Unfortunately, a sports day is taking place at the stadium which initially adds a good sports-related ambience to the interview, however, later on a loudspeaker interrupts the interview and the contributors laugh it off. This is weird pause in the interview and ruins the flow of the piece as the setting ambience has moved into the foreground but become a distraction to the piece. It could be argued that the clip was left in to produce a sense of realism, signifying an Audio-véritré style to the piece, but since this is the only example of said style, it still feels out of place.

Biewen and Dilworth highlight a key concept of audio documentaries is the use of “sound to tell true stories artfully” (2010:5). The clumsy use of the loudspeaker defies this theory by causing a distraction in the listener. Alternative uses of the loudspeaker sound effect could have been a segue to briefly pause the interview and break up the flow of information or as ending to the interview segment. The segment ends with Zaltzman spraining his finger in a rugby exercise which is hard to decipher from the audio, it is explained after the interview segment, but the use of a loudspeaker at this section would signify an emergency, adding more meaning to the action.

The use of interactive media has been growing exponentially in the non-fiction context with stories using their customisable ability for many uses. One such example is A street Near You an interactive image map which allows users, through a postcode search, to explore British and Empire First World War records and find soldiers that lived on their street. The project is a collection of data form many sources and was not made for one news article or investigation. It does, however, have an expansive narrative potential; the recent centenary of the end of the First World War, for example, gave the piece a huge prominence.

Chris Crawford defines interactivity as “a cyclic process in which two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks and speaks” (2005: p.29). In this example; the image map listens to the users input through the postcode search, thinks by finding records within the postcode and surrounding area and then speaks by displaying the records to the user. A simple form of interactivity that is effective for the subject it deals with. The map allows users to search a postcode and finds records within a radius of that area, pinpointing their residence on the map. Users can then click on a pin to find details of a certain soldier, details include name, regiment, date of death and family. By making this piece interactive users get an investigation gratification feel more connected to the information they are receiving. Two lance corporals lived on the street of my student house and because it feels like I found that myself, there’s an emotion connection to the information.

Crawford states there are three degrees of interactivity that work together in harmony for an effective piece, they are speed, depth and choice. The speed of A Street Near You’s postcode search is immediate and doesn’t disrupt the flow of the audience interaction with the piece. Crawford affirms that “Immediacy increases interactivity” (2005: 38) and the audience are not left with an awkward pause that removes them from the experience. Crawford describes depth as “penetrating closer to what makes you human” (2005: 38) and given the delicate subject matter of A Street Near You it could be assumed that the depth of the piece would be immersive and engaging. However, in terms of interactivity, the piece falls rather flat. The search and pins are the only clickable items on the site which doesn’t convey a much audience input, a key element of the “two or more active agents” Crawford defines. The site could improve this by allowing users to “save” records to investigate further or displaying soldiers’ journeys through dotted lines across the map. These features would further the piece’s point of signifying the sheer scale and sacrifice of the first world war and therefore the depth of interactivity.

Moreover, the choice of the piece is also thin as audiences can only view records. Crawford claims “[The] richness of choice defines quality of interaction” (2005: 41) and much like the depth, the choice suffers from limitations. Crawford highlights interactive media’s functional significance which is the “degree of which a choice satisfies user’s desires, needs and interests” (2005: 41) and given the broad narrative potential of individual war stories the audience desires are not fulfilled by a simple record of each soldier. Naturally, finding each soldier’s narrative would be hard but the author points users to a website Livesofthefirstworldwar for further information but not directly adding this information to the piece is missed opportunity.

A screenshot of A Street Near You


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Sam Wallace

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Media Producer studying at BCU, Music snob and corgi lover