Anna Kaul, a rising senior and public policy major at Duke University, spent the summer interning at Frontline, the public affairs television program that produces in-depth documentaries. She wrote the following piece as a capstone of her time at Frontline, an internship experience that was funded in part by the DeWitt Wallace Center.
I pop on my headphones and I’m in Woodstock, Ala., where I’m crying with Brian Reed at the loss of John B. McLemore, the same John whose voice I’ve come to know after listening to the podcast S-Town.
I put on some goggles and I’m in a helicopter, atop magnificent glaciers in Greenland that are quickly and quietly melting away.
I open my computer and I’m with a family in a terrible storm, witnessing the devastation a tornado leaves behind. I’m immersed, part of the story.
I get that same feeling 10 minutes into an interview with Nikki Haskell, a fixture of the New York social scene of the 1970s and ’80s. It’s 10 p.m. and I’m knocking at the doors of Studio 54, watching a young Donald and Ivana Trump become part of the club’s early patronage. In an interview with Sandy McIntosh, a boyhood friend of the future president, I’m transported to a military academy, watching roughhousing boys, hearing “locker room talk,” understanding that perhaps Trump’s views on race and women are straight from the barracks.
I know some of these things from viewing the film The Choice 2016, which contained carefully selected excerpts of these interviews. But much of it is new. Watching the full interviews, and being able to search through them, is a deeper, rawer and in some ways more vivid experience. Haskell, a face I’d seen in The Choice, becomes a bombshell. The revelation of her own character gives me a greater sense of who Trump is, as well. I am immersed in the life and story of Trump, the man who would be president, and I am captivated. Hearing these details from those who know him best makes me feel like I’m part of the story, a new form of experiencing his — and now the United States’ — reality.
Now I’m sitting in the boardroom of The Apprentice with Omarosa and deal-maker Trump — and is it true he doesn’t like to fire people? I’m with not-yet-ousted campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and then-nominee Trump as he chows down on a cheeseburger; there was no time for sitting down at fancy dinners. I’m next to Kellyanne Conway as Trump decides to do three, no four, no five rallies in a day because the data says push into Minnesota, we may have a chance.
As an intern at the TV documentary program Frontline, I’ve been exposed to the sources behind the stories through transcripts and videos the public doesn’t get to see. A wealth of material underlying films like The Choice waits untouched on computer servers. Of course, not everyone can devote two hours to sitting with Nikki Haskell. That’s one of the reasons why this source material needs to be searchable and accessible: so it can be explored in a deliberate manner by people who know what they’re looking for and easy to navigate and discover by those who don’t.
The explosive growth of video journalism is changing the way people consume news. Major news organizations have increased investment in immersive journalistic pieces, utilizing tools like virtual reality and 360° video. VR promises a new frontier for journalism, an even deeper interactive experience where viewers can feel as though they’re stepping into scenes and becoming part of the news they consume.
These advances, marketed especially toward younger viewers, hold the promise of increased interaction with material and investigation of that material by the viewer. But most short videos and VR experiences are highly produced and edited, giving only carefully selected samples of the source material. While 360° video offers the enticing notion of being able to look around and see everything, “everything” is still located inside the box in which the director has chosen to place the viewer. Interactive videos allow users to explore numerous features of a story, but interaction can only go as deep as the reporter wants it to, not the viewer.
Interviews haven’t received the same attention as other immersive content, even though interviews offer deep interaction with reporting and a level of transparency that may increase trust in that reporting. The public is the most distrustful of media it’s ever been, with only 18 percent of Americans saying they trust a lot of the information they get from national news organizations, according to the Pew Research Center. Without access to source material, audiences cannot delve into reporting and see the origins of stories. Doing so makes it easier to hold journalists accountable for their reporting.
Commitment to transparency — a value Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel identify in their book The Elements of Journalism as one of the essential principles of reporting — is especially critical when the public distrusts the media. But transparency is seen by many in the field as a trite buzzword. Cited in a study about the implementation of transparency measures in newsrooms, a New York Times reporter said although there is acknowledgement of transparency as a journalistic standard, “transparency” is an issue that is not practically applied in the daily routine of a newsroom. Some reporters in the study also said they didn’t know how to fulfill the public’s expectation of transparency without compromising the objectives of their journalism, which often requires keeping sources and methods secret.
Some major organizations that recognize the importance of transparency are taking small steps to achieve openness with their readers. The New York Times launched Times Insider in 2015, which includes behind-the-scenes looks at stories and interviews with journalists. Reuters recently introduced a similar initiative. While innovation in the areas of interactive and experiential reporting has dramatically increased in digital journalism, there hasn’t been that same innovation with an eye to transparency and trust. Most major news organizations that do investigative and accountability journalism don’t currently provide transcripts in order to explore their reporting. Of the 2017 Emmy nominees for Outstanding Edited Interview, only 60 Minutes published full transcripts, with none enabled for interaction with video.
When scientists aren’t transparent about their methods or researchers don’t publish data sets and footnotes, their results aren’t reproducible and their findings aren’t credible. What is lost when journalists don’t conduct reporting with an expectation of transparency?
Frontline can fulfill goals to be both transparent and immersive. The Frontline Transparency Project aims to provide audiences with access to the underlying reporting behind its films. It is creating simple ways to explore, search, highlight and share content from a vast trove of in-depth interviews. The goal is to give audiences access to the raw material of journalism without overwhelming them with a huge, static archive. Instead, viewers who want to dig deeper can see for themselves how key sources and central characters tell their stories, respond to questions and talk about subjects not included in the film. The result is not just greater transparency into the journalistic process. Freeing up access to the sources behind the films adds context, credibility and insight to the history these films relate.
The key to creating this experience is interactive transcripts synced to the video interviews — transcripts presented in an easy-to-use, intuitive way. Creating interactive transcripts is a process that faces daunting challenges. Publishing interview transcripts is not a groundbreaking concept. But publishing transcripts in such a way that they can be meaningfully explored is still largely uncharted terrain. To present a video that has functionality beyond a simple viewing experience requires generating a transcript, editing that transcript for clarity and accuracy and syncing the transcript to the video, which must also be edited to match the edited transcript.
Syncing video to the transcript can be time-consuming. This functionality is integral to making the video itself more useful, allowing viewers to share clips and navigate the video using the text. Captioning software can match a generated transcript to a video with assigned timecodes. But captioning software cannot match text to video at the sentence level and is therefore not optimized for sharing content. Captioning software is also prohibitively expensive, making the goal of transparency as an industry standard unrealistic.
Using trial and error, team members at Frontline have been able to refine the process and reduce the time it takes to publish a large volume of interviews by nearly half. We’ve developed a workflow, combining existing tools like foot pedals, Audio Notetaker software and Microsoft Word macros, with a guide that can be used at any organization. While Frontline’s method makes the process more manageable than it once was, we are still short of an automatic, streamlined process — a one-click option for syncing video and text at the word level and then exporting the transcript with corresponding timecodes. If this process can be further simplified, videos with synced transcripts could become the norm. Currently, the manpower and time required to publish large volumes of source material with this level of interaction is prohibitive for most organizations.
These challenges don’t mean we should stop trying. When scientists aren’t transparent about their methods or researchers don’t publish data sets and footnotes, their results aren’t reproducible and their findings aren’t credible. What is lost when journalists don’t conduct reporting with an expectation of transparency? Frontline hopes to set an industry standard of openness and transparency, all the while contributing to a growing body of immersive journalism.