Let the story dictate the format

An interview with non-profit platform Coda Story’s co-founder and editor-in-chief Natalia Antelava.

‘Publishers must acknowledge the pivot to video has failed, find out why, and set about to fix the reckless pivots so that publishers focus on good video. It should be original, clever, entertaining, and part of a balanced multimedia approach to digital journalism that includes well-written, well-reported stories, strong data and graphics, and good art.’ (Heidi N Moore)

This excerpt from an article about the controversial pivot to video, published by Columbia Journalism Review this week perfectly sums up the work of Coda Story, a non-profit platform that creates web series about complex, ongoing news events, such as disinformation and the refugee crisis.

Coda Story sets itself apart from other news organisations through its determination to give stories the format and time that they deserve. Rather than cramming news stories into short articles or ‘snackable’ videos, Coda Story uses intimate storytelling methods, animations, and various mixed formats to create meaningful content with a long shelf-life.

Coda Story’s focus on distressing news stories makes it a particularly strong reference point for sensitive video reporting practices and ethical journalism.

Natalia Antelava at the GEN Summit 2017

We talked to Natalia Antelava, Emmy nominee, winner of Startups for News 2014, and co-founder/editor-in-chief at Coda Story, about Coda Story’s venture into the world of immersive technologies, why we should be taking inspiration from Hollywood when it comes to news reporting, and how art can benefit journalism.

People love stories about other people

GEN: Coda Story’s content can only have an impact if the audience is loyal. What is your video strategy?

Natalia Antelava: In a way the answer is simple: people love stories about other people. Our format is based on focused, in-depth storytelling, which allows us to do the kind of journalism that more traditional media find difficult to produce: following the stories of individual people. This kind of intimate storytelling, when done right, is poignant and effective and helps us develop a more committed and focused audience.

In our LGBT crisis edition, we did a web-series about a journey of a trans-woman in Russia. We followed her as she had surgery and travelled back to her hometown in Siberia, only to be rejected by her family. The response was incredible and we were so pleased that Vika, our main character, received so much support after the series came out. It’s rare to see your journalism have an impact and it is very empowering when it does.

It was harder to come up with an idea of how to be up-close and personal in our Disinformation edition. How do you tell a story about the disinformation crisis in an intimate way? Since one of the most striking side effects of disinformation is the polarisation in our societies, we decided to follow two people who live on opposite sides of a narrative. The result is a web-series called Clash of Narratives. Throughout it, the two points of view are juxtaposed without facing any judgement, and both are equally questioned and challenged.

Clash of Narratives: the pilot

The pilot has just been selected for Raindance, the UK’s largest independent film festival, and we are currently continuing the production of other episodes. The really interesting thing about the Clash of Narratives pilot was that it attracted audiences from both sides of the narrative, building a bridge between the two echo-chambers.

Integrating art

You focus on topics such as violence against LGBTQ people in Ukraine, and the refugee crisis. How do your videos inspire empathy among viewers without compromising the dignity of those at the receiving end of violence and suffering?

We focus on crises that affect our societies, and our goal is to explain these events in a way that provides both context and intimate storytelling. Like many journalists we constantly deal with stories of people who are vulnerable and in precarious situations. However, there is a fine line between getting a story about people out, and using people to get your story out. I remember a famous incident during the school massacre in Beslan, where a journalist, who wanted to interview a mother who had just lost both of her children, told his translator ‘I don’t care what you ask her, just make her cry’.

One way of protecting dignity is therefore not hiring journalists who see other people’s suffering as a way of getting ahead in their careers.

We are constantly evaluating how we tell people’s stories. Last year, we sent a reporter to do a big piece on horrific crimes against gay people in Kyrgyzstan and he came back with an incredibly powerful audio interview with a victim of gang rape. The man would have never gone on camera, but he agreed to be taped. Although we had not planned on releasing it, the interview was so powerful that we decided to experiment with animating his story.

This was Coda Story’s first animation and we won a number of awards for it. More importantly, however, it motivated us to integrate art into more of our storytelling, adding a further human dimension to our reporting. Animations are an effective way of telling stories that are otherwise hard to visualise.

How do you tell stories of suffering without causing too much distress to the reader, especially when using visual content?

We recently did an animation for one of our partner organisations, based on their long investigation about torture in secret prisons in Russia. Their piece was full of graphic details of various torture techniques, which we knew we couldn’t show–not even as drawings. We therefore focused on details instead: a hand with wires tied to it and a plastic bag on the floor. These techniques are hardly innovative as they are used in all sorts of visual storytelling, but they work.

When we did a piece about the murders of gay men in Ukraine, we really struggled how to capture the sheer number of gay men killed just for being gay. Should we show covered bodies or body bags? Instead we settled on a much simpler idea, which included drawings of men holding up signs with their name, age, details of the violence they faced, and how they were killed. Not only does this technique avoid causing too much distress, but it humanises the story and makes people think more deeply about what they are seeing. A real 22-year old man whose name you have just been told is no longer just a statistic, but a human being to whom we can all relate.

Handy hints for using animations

How can you ensure animations fulfil their potential?

  • If the subject permits you to show a real picture, then you should. We use video whenever possible, and we do a lot of mixed medium work (video and animation).
  • Select artists that have the right cultural references. When we did a piece about Stalin’s gulags and deportations, we selected an artist with a family that had a personal experience of the events.
  • Creating animations isn’t limited to artists. Check out this piece by a Moscow-based journalist about the reality of working for state-run TV.

Immersive technologies are not just for fun

Do you plan on using immersive technologies in your reporting in the future? What are the biggest challenges of using these technologies?

Everywhere you look online, 360 videos are just videos that you happen to be able to spin around, but very few actually seem to be using the medium effectively.

We are currently working on our first 360 animation, but we are also trying to think more deeply about how a story can benefit from or truly merit immersive treatment. For us, using immersive technologies for the sake of using them is simply not good enough. It is very important that 360 isn’t just a gimmick, but that it actually adds to the story.

And finally, how do you see the future of news storytelling?

Exciting, full of opportunities, and very demanding. Our readers and viewers have higher demands than ever and the fight for their attention is fierce, so we all need to become better storytellers. We should look for inspiration from people who do it well, whether they are in Hollywood or television dramas or commercials. If we can apply their skills, while also keeping the basic principles of journalism sacred, they can do wonders to journalism.

Like what you read? Give Freia Nahser a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.