Tips on mobile journalism

Using a smartphone

In this era of instant information (and misinformation), the BBC and other media outlets have provided smartphones to many of its field reporters.

Below BBC staff give advice on how journalists can make the most of their iPhones for audio, images and live broadcasts.

In the field

Radio 5 live reporter Nick Garnett, who is seen as being at the vanguard of mobile journalism, gives his insight into smartphone reporting.

I use my phone for everything. During the England riots last year, I was broadcasting by talking on the phone safely while the Radio Manchester car got burnt - no one knew what I was doing.

Anyone who has the Skype app or iPhone Voice Memos apps can broadcast live. All we have to do is get the mindset which says that, instead of only working to a particular programme, you can be on air immediately when there is a breaking story, which is frankly the whole fun of radio.

Editor's view

Sarah Drummond

Radio York editor Sarah Drummond advises BBC reporters to use their mobiles "little and often".

"It's great for breaking news but, if you only use it for those stories, then you can get out of practice."

Drummond is leading the rollout of iPhones and iPads across BBC English Regions where every regional TV news programme gets around 12 mobiles and 3 tablets, and each local radio station has about 8 mobiles and 2 tablets.

The rollout started this year in time for the Olympic torch relay and London 2012. So far, they have proved especially useful during severe weather and elections, and Drummond reckons they sound as good as an ISDN line.

But she doesn't think they will replace radio cars or camera crews. "We obviously want the ability to gather quality shots. But if it's the difference between getting pictures and audio when first on the scene or not getting them, then these mobiles are fantastic."

The BBC says the English Regions rollout has provided ten times the number of live devices than traditional and more expensive broadcast equipment.

"The mobiles are part of your palette of tools," adds Drummond. "If you've got a flash mic it just records, but with a smartphone, I can do internet research, check social media, record, make a phone call, text my news editor and use Quickfire."

I was driving to Bristol when I heard Little Chef was closing down just as I was passing a branch. I parked up, vox-popped customers coming out, mixed the audio in my car and filed it. Around 20 minutes later it was on the next financial bulletin.

It's just as easy for me dialling up Radio York as it is 5 live - I can do the same piece for them immediately. We need some sort of structure in place so it's easy for a Radio Leicester reporter to know who to speak to at network because duplication goes on but not as much as management seem to think. There are reporters closer to stories than perhaps I am who, if they know how to, can file the audio.

On a day-to-day basis, I use Luci Live and the Vericorder Voddio app [around £7] for multi-track editing. A few months ago, I helped set up the first live guest interview on the BBC News Channel via iPhone using the [free] Dejero app.

For once the BBC is miles ahead of other broadcasters. If there is a natural disaster and we can't get a reporter to a location, we can get guests on air by telling them how to install an app and set up a makeshift tripod, and they can get on live in quality via the internet.

Everyone becomes a broadcaster.

People say you should have a high-quality external mic but if you use your phone intelligently and shield it from the wind, it's not always necessary. Often I don't have a windsock with me so what do I do? The clue's in the name, you take a sock off and wrap it around the end of the phone.

Make sure you're connected to a good signal - don't wander out of the phone reception area.

I can get 10 hours from my phone because I have a strap-on battery - I have every add-on gadget that I possibly can. I've bought these all myself but it makes my job and life easier.

Follow the advances in mobile journalism on Nick's blog here.

Tips from BBC College of Journalism

Audio

  • When recording your voice, hold the phone as if you're on a phone call - don't be tempted to hold it flat like they do on The Apprentice.
  • Don't shout into the microphone. If you have one, use a windshield to avoid "popping" - it's the cheapest way of improving your sound.
  • The iPhone mic records sound from further away than other mics, so be aware that your recording may pick up background sound in noisy locations.
  • The Voice Memo app which is already installed on the iPhone records in m4a format. Other apps will allow you to record in MP3 and wav formats.
  • Turn on Airplane mode to avoid phone calls interrupting your audio and video recordings.
  • Consider using an external mic. To do this you will need to use an iPhone microphone adaptor cable.
  • External leads can give you better sound or allow more traditional video framing. You can even use the mic on the iPhone headphones for audio with video (the sound is better - because it is closer to the mouth - than using the inbuilt mic given the distance between the device and person speaking).
screengrab Flooding in September led to the first live interview on the News Channel via an iPhone

Video

  • Always hold the phone horizontally (landscape mode) otherwise your recording will have black bars on either side when played back on TV or online.
  • Frame the shot properly - use the "rule of thirds" for video and stills.
  • Hold the phone steady by pulling your elbows in to your sides
  • Don't be tempted to pan around. Keep the camera still.
  • To get a good sound you may need to frame the picture a lot closer than you would with a traditional camera. Or just use an external mic.
  • Keep video shots short - easier to edit, easier to send.

Stills

  • Assess the scene and get as close as you safely can.
  • Landscape-framed shots are almost always better than portrait ones.
  • Think carefully about using the zoom as it is digital rather than optical, and can make your picture look pixellated and blurry.
  • In situations with a high contrast between light and dark areas, consider using the HDR (High Dynamic Range) setting.
  • When emailing photos you will be offered different sizing options. "Small" is generally too small and will not look good on websites. "Actual Size" may take too long to send if you have a slow connection. Use your discretion.

Going live

  • VOIP apps like Skype (video and audio), Report-It (audio), LuciLive (audio) and Dejero LIVE+ (video) can be used if you have the correct IPCom units to process the signal. Quality will depend hugely on connectivity.
  • If you can persuade people who may be sharing your internet or 3G connection NOT to use it while you are broadcasting, there is a better chance of staying on air. But good luck with that!
  • Use headphones if you can as it will be much easier to hear the cue from the studio. But don't use the iPhone headphones if you are broadcasting audio alone, as this will then use the in-cable mic and not provide high quality sound.

General

  • Invest in some apps to allow you to edit audio, video and photographs. Some will allow complex multitrack mixing.
  • There are many ways of improving the battery life of your phone including: buying external battery packs; turning off "Push" in your email settings and choosing "Fetch" instead; turning down the screen brightness; and closing down apps regularly.

From Samantha Upton and Marc Settle at BBC College of Journalism

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