An Insider’s Account of How The New York Times Video Team Reported the Paris Attacks
Calling on solid contacts, editing citizen-made footage in quick turnaround and hiring sharp-witted freelancers are key to delivering timely, accurate and compelling video coverage
by Sahiba Chawdhary, Blink Social Media News Editor.
There was a time when citizen journalism was considered, by some in traditional journalism, as a threat to job security. There existed fears that publishers would distribute free content made by the masses instead of investing in professionals to craft visual stories. The notion seems ridiculous now; we understand that traditional journalism and citizen-made stills and video do not compete against one another but compliment one another.
Images made on the scene by members of the public are vital for the news ecosystem and provide fresh and important starting points for eye-witness reflections. No coverage better illustrates this point than the New York Times’ ground-breaking video coverage of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.
Here, NYT Senior Video Producer Soo Jeong Kang dissects her team’s coverage of the attacks, and tells Sahiba Chawdhary how NYT tells the world’s fastest-moving breaking news stories by coupling citizen-sourced footage with that made by hired freelancers.
Sahiba Chawdhary (SC): Can you tell us about yourself and what got you interested in video journalism?
Soo-Jeong Kang (SJK): I began producing videos for the Times in 2010, as a picture editor. At that time, photographers were experimenting with shooting video with the Canon 5D Mark 2, which enabled them to make still and moving imagery with the same camera. It was a form of evolving visual storytelling. We produced some ground-breaking “multimedia” videos — multimedia is a term that was developed to reference visual projects that were deeply rooted in the tradition of photography.
The composition and approach to multimedia videos distinguished itself from traditional forms of broadcast journalism. Like the photographers I worked with, producing these videos offered a transition into filmmaking, and I joined the video department full-time.
SC: How do you usually cover breaking news stories?
SJK: My background is in producing enterprise videos for various desks at the Times, which is a term we use in the newsroom to describe long term projects that don’t necessarily have a peg to hard news. This lets me spend more time crafting the narrative and identifying story themes. During my embed with the Metro desk this year, we covered breaking news stories like the East Village building explosion in March. Covering this kind of event gave me insights into how video at the Times should cover breaking news in the future: with nimbleness, rigor and creativity.
“There is still a lack of infrastructure in the video industry, so it is important for video journalists to get on the radar of producers at news organizations.”
Breaking news videos rely heavily on resources drawn from social media. In the wake of the East Village building explosion, we used Instagram and Twitter to find sources who could give immediate eye-witness accounts. Before the TV networks and wire service shooters arrive on the scene, the most immediate and impactful videos come from the ordinary bystanders who shot with their smartphones at the moment of impact. This simple act is revolutionary and is changing the world of storytelling. The issue awareness with police shootings of young black men is the result of the fact that the public has this powerful communication device in their hands at all times.
SC: How did you cover the recent terrorist attacks in Paris? Can you describe the newsroom immediately after the news broke?
SJK: The Friday evening of the Paris attacks, editors in the newsroom alerted the video department that the story was breaking. The video department’s leadership mobilized the team after conferring with the social media and news desks. These desks are experts at in editing short bursts of news clips from the wires and publishing them as fast as possible on the Times site.
Sahiba: How did you and your team allocate resources to cover this story?
SJK: We assigned two Paris video shooters, Stefania Rousselle and Emiland Guillerme, and started a Google doc to keep us all up to speed on the ongoing coverage. I was on the weekend call duty as a Senior Producer, so I immediately started to contact my network of photojournalists, fixers, and interpreters. Most importantly, we needed a video editor who spoke fluent French to work from our New York office and interpret and edit the materials coming in from Paris.
There is still a lack of infrastructure in the video industry, so it is important for video journalists to get on the radar of producers at news organizations. Networking through organizations like Blink is a good first step because it enables us to connect and discover talent on a global scale. I was able find excellent video editors from Blink, and going forward, as this media form expands and evolves, I can see the crucial role services like this can play in the industry.
SC: What were your priorities for coverage? Could you elaborate on the plan of action?
SJK: My professional network, built from years working in the news industry, was indispensable in this moment. I reached out to a group of visual journalists with a brief message: I need video shooters in Paris and French-speaking video editors in New York. I also contacted freelancers in Europe and Africa, inquiring about who may be available. Foreign correspondents have a tight-knit community and many of them know each other, despite being based in different regions. This was the same process I used when I produced stories for news magazines — except I no longer relied on the help of photo agencies that once were the only way to access photographers on the ground. Now, it’s mostly done through social media.
Initially, the most powerful videos were shot by ordinary citizens who experienced the attacks and shared them on social media. There weren’t as many as I thought there would be (many came out after the weekend had passed).
SC: What happened the morning after the attacks?
SJK: On Saturday morning, the day after the attacks, the video news team met to discuss our strategy. We dispatched our staff video journalists, Ben Solomon, who flew to Paris from Africa, and Leslye Davis, who was on assignment in Brazil.
Unlike photography, which can be easily transmitted across oceans and published immediately, filming and editing takes several days to complete. We needed to think about what the relevant news would be in three to five days. Our editorial discussions focused on the survivors, the hunt for the terrorists and the investigation of their identities and the victims.
Surviving Paris: Pulled from Gunfire by Emiland Guillerme was the first survivor account we published on nytimes.com. Once Ben Solomon and Leslye Davis settled in, they produced Grief Interrupted in Paris. They went to a public place to cover a vigil, which ended up being disrupted by reported gunfire. It was later determined to be a false alarm, but the story captured the anxiety, grief and fear that hung in the air in the days after the attacks.
SC: How did you track down the survivors featured in An Improbable Survival?
SJK: On Sunday morning, I could not stop thinking about the disturbing video of the woman and a man hanging on the facade of the Bataclan, filmed on an iPhone by a journalist for Le Monde. I was compelled to find out who she was and what happened to her. I sent out a call to see if our staff at the International Times or the Paris bureau had any information on her identity. I’ve learned that you have to trust your reporting instincts and “go with your gut.”
Managing editor Steve Duenes assigned our social media coordinator to find the woman dangling in the video. We found her rescuer, Sebastien, and learned that she had survived. The two had kept in touch since Friday night, but they did not want to speak about their traumatic experiences on camera. After some discussion, Sébastien agreed to share his incredible story of surviving the attack and a two-hour standoff as a hostage. We ended up using, with permission, audio recorded by the France Bleu Gard Lozère radio station.
We were shocked to know that the woman he pulled to safety was pregnant. She can be heard in the audio of the video saying, “I’m begging you. Please, I’m slipping, I’m pregnant.” The thought of her survival was something that I knew would resonate with all.
It took us over five days to track the survivor, get in touch with him, retrieve the footage from the wires, transcribe, fact-check and edit the video. For such stories, it’s like the snowball effect, one clue gets you closer to the story or person.
To date, we produced more than 75 videos about the Paris attacks.
SC: That’s a gripping story, thank you for sharing. On a broader scale, what are you looking for when you hire a freelance videographer for similar breaking news assignments?
SJK: During breaking news events of this magnitude, I assign visual journalists who can find a compelling narrative and articulate the relevance of the story. A video journalist must have good instincts because they need to work fast. There isn’t much time for doubt or hesitation. It requires more than shooting b-roll of the scene; it requires storytelling under duress. It requires ideas and resourcefulness. We don’t rely upon on-camera reporters to describe the situation; our coverage get to the heart of the matter.
To create successful videos, it requires a critical mass of manpower, unlike still photography, where the motivated lone wolf can excel. There is a good reason why a two hour movie has seemingly infinite credit lines, or that a 15 second commercial requires over 20 people to produce. I am not saying that one cannot produce a video economically, but it’s important to recognize that to produce video there is a confluence of different art forms: story development, production, cinematography, audio, editing, script writing, post production, just to start. Many of the most talented and successful video journalists I work with have collaborators, infrastructure and a support system where they share and develop ideas.
“During breaking news … there isn’t much time for doubt or hesitation. It requires more than shooting b-roll of the scene; it requires storytelling under duress.”
SC: What are the best practices freelance videographers should follow while working for NYT? How do you classify a “job well done”?
SJK: I would recommend video journalists working for the Times is to always remember that the most important aspect to any narrative is the story we choose to tell. I usually choose stories that I personally find compelling and then ask myself how can we tell that story in the most creative way.
I classify a job well done when the video makes me connect to the protagonist or if I feel emotional about it — and if I learned something new or surprising. Take the story of Sébastien saving the woman from the Bataclan building. The twist in the story, the part of the narrative that was most stirring was that the woman hanging on the Bataclan facade was pregnant and Sébastien was taken hostage after he had saved her. This really stuck out in the midst of so many stories coming out on the attacks.
View all the New York Times’ video coverage of the Paris Attacks here.
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