Coronavirus' impact on mobile journalism

Marc Settle is one of the BBC Academy's smartphone trainers, showing staff how to use the device they always have in their pocket to record, edit and send broadcast-quality material from location. In this piece, he reflects on the changes brought about by the necessary limitations of the coronavirus - and some solutions to the new challenges.

Cameraman Mike Buttery filming a contributor while his BBC Look North reporter colleague Phil Bodmer holds the boom pole and microphone

Cameraman Mike Buttery filming a contributor while his BBC Look North reporter colleague Phil Bodmer holds the boom pole and microphone

BBC Look North cameraman Mike Buttery films on his phone while reporter Phil Bodmer helps out with the audio

 

The list of activities disrupted by Coronavirus is long: taking a holiday; visiting family and friends; eating at a restaurant; playing sport in groups. You can probably add numerous other examples of your own. And while mobile journalism (mojo) could be dismissed as trivial, it's been hit too. Ironically, this may have come just when smartphones have broken through into wide usage: think of all of the pieces on TV, radio and online in recent weeks, recorded either by journalists at home without “proper” kit or by real people filming their lockdown lives. Sometimes the quality may even have been good enough that you wouldn't have noticed it was recorded on a smartphone even if the key word here is 'sometimes'.

But for the professional mobile journalist, the demands of social distancing mean mojo has had to change for those doing it in recent weeks. For the dedicated, the prepared and the well-resourced, there are workarounds; for the others, less so. The biggest impact could come where mojo used to work best – when a journalist only has their phone on them and has to work at speed.

That was then...

Consider how a journalist and a smartphone used to work together before Coronavirus. Armed just with a phone, they could capture great video of an event – and, to be fair, that will still be the case now if the pictures are of a general scene. But what makes great video really great is good audio too, especially of people. Too often, smartphone video with good pictures has been let down by barely audible interviewees. Too much background has drowned them out; or they were too far from the microphone on the smartphone and so can’t be heard well.

The advice I gave BBC journalists for when they only had their phone was to get close, as the nearer they were to the mic, the better the sound. But that’s ruled out by social distancing. It’s still the case that 'story trumps quality' – in other words, if the story is very strong then poor sound will be tolerated. But while that holds for footage from members of the public, professional journalists should aim higher.

Mojo often gets easier with more kit and the one thing people often have on them is their headphones, which also have a decent microphone. So that used to be my next piece of advice: that mic could be used to get better audio from an interviewee. But this too is limited by social distancing, as previously it would have seen the mojo attaching the mic to the guest or at least asking them to hold it. Additionally, the cable on the headphones is around 1m, half the distance that we now need to keep apart. Quality audio recordings are also best achieved by holding the phone just 20cm or so from the guest.

BBC 5 Live's Nick Garnett using his smartphone for an interview

BBC 5 Live's Nick Garnett using his smartphone for an interview

In the era before social distancing, BBC 5 Live's Nick Garnett shows how to hold a smartphone for a radio interview 

"The answers are not cheap, lightweight or quick"

Those are the major problems with mojo in the Coronavirus world – what about solutions?

Conversations with those in the mojo world, at the BBC and beyond, indicate that the answers are not cheap, lightweight or quick.

...this is now

As I wrote above, mojo gets easier with more kit and that forms a big part of the solution, with the emphasis on 'big' both in terms of size and price. One of the real benefits of mojo was that it was lightweight with most gadgets fitting into a small bag. But now, mojos need an extendable pole to attach a microphone to get their contributor's audio while respecting social distancing.

This pole could be a boom pole or a simple monopod – but neither would be easy for a solo journalist to hold in one hand and their smartphone in the other. So, in addition to the pole, a stand to hold it is useful. Both add to the price and bulk of the previously nimble mojo kit bag. A radical option would be a second person to hold the boom pole, but many mojos work on their own, so there isn’t another person to help.

On the end of the boom pole (in the image at the top) is a directional mic. These aren’t cheap either and it'll also need a long cable to make sure it can connect to the smartphone. (An extension cable would also be the answer to the problem caused by the 1m long headphone cables)

The alternative to wires would be wireless mics which would help with social distancing but again these aren’t cheap. £80 if you're lucky but most good quality and reliable ones are £150 and more. Not out of the price range for all, but not a trivial amount, especially for larger news organisations which in the past have given staff a 'grab bag' of basic mojo kit. But for those with a wireless set-up, the transmitter part (the bit with the mic) can be put into a ziplock bag and left for the contributor to attach. Once the interview is done, the mic is put back into the bag and left for the mojo to pick up ahead of cleaning.

Getting help from your guests

 

One workaround would involve even more cooperation from the guest, which may not always be possible. It can give great results, despite being a lot more time-consuming. Ask your guest to use their own smartphone, and even the mic on their own headphones, to record their audio while you film them. They send it to you and you then match it up with the pictures later.

In addition to the challenges of getting good audio, consider also how video itself can be gathered. One of the selling points of filming with a smartphone was how 'up close and personal' it could be. People who would be put off or even intimidated when being filmed by a large broadcast camera often felt more comfortable when a smartphone was used. And if they’re more comfortable, they’re more natural – leading to better shots and interviews. But now, thanks to social distancing, the best type of shot a smartphone could reasonably aim to get will be a medium shot, from the waist and up.

This limitation could be overcome by using add-on lenses to zoom closer (more expense and more gear) or phones with dual/triple lenses (even more expensive) or filming in 4K (which lets you zoom in 'in post'). Another more time-consuming approach would be to set up the tight shot, to show detail of the person or the thing they’re doing, without the subject in shot, start recording and then remove yourself from the location.

 

Getting a shot ready without the subject in the frame

Getting a shot ready without the subject in the frame

BBC Look North cameraman Mike Buttery setting up his shot without his contributor in frame

Coronavirus hasn’t ended mobile journalism entirely, but the necessary constraints it has imposed are likely to mean that just whipping out a phone at short notice won’t provide as easily the same kind of results as in the past. Decent mojo will still be possible, but only after more extensive planning, more expensive gear and expecting it to take more time. These limitations go against what made mojo what it was. There will be, for the foreseeable future, a huge impact on the “unexpected mojo” which has been so productive for output where the devices have been used in clever, nimble and innovative ways. 

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