How we reported #Ferguson using only mobile phones

Shadi Rahimi
Mar 27, 2015 · 6 min read

by Shadi Rahimi

I came to AJ+, Al Jazeera’s new social/mobile-first project, in June 2014 after nearly three years reporting on the revolution in Egypt. In Cairo, cell phones were the primary delivery source of news from the street. At protests you’d see dozens of hands holding up phones, from flip to iPhones and iPads. Several months after joining AJ+ in San Francisco, I was deployed to cover protests in Ferguson, MO, where tweets from protestors on cell phones also beat mainstream media to breaking news. We joined in — as the only media team posting video from mobile phones direct to social media.

Media had learned the story of Michael Brown’s killing from tweets and cell phone footage published online by residents. Much like activists and live streamers, when in Ferguson we live streamed, filmed and edited on our phones and tweeted photos and video as news broke. We also filmed for 1:30 minute overnight pieces that told a larger story, which our team in San Francisco edited on Premiere. This is a piece constructed from reactions to the announcement that Officer Darren Wilson would not face trial:

My fellow producer Brooke Minters and I were the second mobile reporting team deployed from our office. The first, led by Japhet Weeks, reported from the People’s Climate March in New York City. In October, we took the same equipment with us to Ferguson: 4 x Apple iPhone 5’s; 2 x monopods; 2 x small RØDE shotgun mics; 2 x Audio-Technica wired lav mics; 2 x ikan LED lights; 2 x metal housing for the iPhone with a wide-angle lens adaptor; 2 x wide angle lens; 2 x T brackets; 4 x external battery packs.

The set-up is affordable for anyone to construct for a few hundred dollars — though some company should really jump on the opportunity to provide a one-stop mobile kit. This Japhet showing what ours looks like:

After our first trip, we found that Verizon performed most consistently in Ferguson and St. Louis. But when there were many users in one place, the network would overload and data rates would drop. Sometimes we had to run or even drive away from crowds to transmit full HD footage.

Another major challenge we faced was weather. It was pouring rain when we first arrived in Ferguson during a week of protests designed to renew attention around the killing of Michael Brown. At the first protest we covered, we were drenched and scrambling to wipe raindrops and fog off our iPhone lenses and wide angle lenses while running after a march. Because our equipment was makeshift, there were no coverings we found to fit properly. We tried trimming plastic camera rain covers to fit, but found that using garbage bags with rubber bands worked better, though not foolproof.

This is a protest we covered in pouring rain:

Yet another obstacle was audio. There’s no way to monitor sound with the iPhone’s native camera app. We chose not to use apps like Filmic Pro or ProCam, because although both allow monitoring, they were too buggy. When possible, we would fire up ProCam first to test that the iPhone was recording audio through the shotgun mic or lav, then used the native camera app to record. But over time, we found that process was clunky when running through the streets. We often went straight to the native app and hoped for the best. It often worked, and sometimes did not.

Quality is huge issue, brought up most to me as an argument against mobile by television/documentary shooters. I shot this piece below after popping into a gun shop on my way to the airport. It could have filmed better with a DSLR, which I also film with at times. But at the same time, while phone footage may be shaky, the colors may be less than gorgeous and the sound isn’t great, the story remains the same. That’s what’s important:

Soon enough, Brooke and I were so efficient at delivering footage that we were told to slow down. We were covering protests nearly nonstop, from the morning to early morning hours the next day, tweeting from our accounts while feeding breaking video to our social media team on the real-time messaging service Slack. Our team would bug the clips with our logo and tweet it from our AJ+ account. (Note: A developer should create an app that allows the bugging of logos on mobile video —we’d be their first customer).

We watched our audience grow as we scooped other news outlets on Twitter. No others were reporting this way. In the spaces between the breaking stories, we found ways to report more creatively for our social media audience. This is a “how to” piece I crafted by filming on mobile the making of tear gas masks by protestors who didn’t want their faces filmed:

We’d launched AJ+ just several months before, and this was a real test of how reporting a national news story on mobile would work. At AJ+ we deliver our news solely on social media and mobile platforms, so it’s only natural that we also capture the news with phones. While there are many in media who dismiss the low quality of mobile footage, particularly the lack of cinematic shallow depth-of-field or the zoom range, I’m in the camp that believes the social media audience appreciates seeing raw video — despite the quality — because there’s a layer of trust built when there’s no editing.

Breaking news is one instance in which speed trumps quality, particularly when your audience is also citizen reporting on social media. One of our most popular videos was a quick interview I grabbed of a former police officer who was standing in solidarity with protestors. On Facebook this sound bite received 3.5+ million views and 88,000+ shares:

As a journalist who filmed countless protests in Cairo with a DSLR while also tweeting on a phone, I found the size and weight of a mobile phone rig liberating. We moved nimbly in Ferguson, capturing shots over crowds by extending the monopod over heads. We edited directly on the camera app, trimming video to capture the exact sound bites we wanted our team to use, eliminating the need for scripts and circumventing mistakes. On the ground, activists and journalists would ask about our equipment. All were surprised to learn we were producing the content seen online with phones — and to learn how easy and cost effective it was to create such a set-up.

When the rig failed (usually due to fogging in rain), I would sometimes pull out my secondary phone and capture footage by hand:

Before I left Egypt, I saw a call-out in Cairo for mobile documentaries. After reporting with a mobile phone in Ferguson, and later in Oakland, CA, my teammates and I envisioned our office fostering a “mobile army” — a mobile reporting force ready to be deployed to report breaking news and produce mini-documentaries easily and efficiently around the world.

At AJ+ we’re moving closer to embracing this reporting tactic, and incorporating it as one of the many tools at our disposal when it comes to delivering breaking news to our audience. At the #Mojocon conference in Dublin, Ireland, where I spoke about mobile reporting, I met people who are innovating this technology, who have been teaching journalists how to use mobile phones to report for years, and who are creating documentaries with mobile phones. There’s also journalists teaching marginalized indigenous communities how to tell their stories with mobile phones, or providing phones to doctors fighting Ebola. There’s a full list of everyone who spoke on the website, I encourage anyone interested in #mojo to take a look:

I don’t believe mobile phones will replace legacy journalism. But I do believe that a mobile journalism kit should be at every journalist’s disposal. Communicating directly with the social media audience is the future of journalism — eliminating the top-down approach to news. Now is the time for all in media to embrace it fully, and help move the technology forward.

Firsthand Stories

A platform for firsthand narrative accounts. Here’s where you can find the story behind the story for our AJ+ content and more.

    Shadi Rahimi

    Written by

    Shadi Rahimi is the Deputy Producer of Engagement at AJ+, Al Jazeera’s new social media and mobile-first project. shadirahimi.com / @shadirahimi

    Firsthand Stories

    A platform for firsthand narrative accounts. Here’s where you can find the story behind the story for our AJ+ content and more.

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