Show, Don’t Tell: The Advantages of Visual Journalism

Accomplished photojournalist Mary Knox Merrill was kind enough to come to our class Thursday to discuss visual journalism. Merrill is a staff photographer for Northeastern and spent five years at The Christian Science Monitor.

Mary Knox Merrill talks about visual journalism

I could tell immediately Merrill had a passion for visual storytelling. She mentioned her background of studying photography in college, when she admitted to “falling in love with the dark room.” She also called photojournalism a “lifelong process,” and sentiments like this demonstrate she is someone who truly enjoys her work.

I think the major advantage of visual journalism is it goes beyond words on a page, helping the audience get a clearer understanding of the story. A perfect example of this is the story of the mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park. Reading the story in print may paint a certain picture for the audience, but Merrill’s use of photo, video and audio voiceover does what text cannot. The opening video of the mountain gorilla eating in the jungle immediately makes the story real to the audience. Something about seeing a 500-pound animal from 10 feet away makes the story resonate.

Another great part about visual journalism is it allows the subject to tell the story rather than the journalist. Consider Merrill’s presentation of the Cyclocross Grand Prix of Gloucester. Merrill is not present at all in the video, yet by using footage from the race, photos of athletes in action and interviews with participants, the audience can see what the event is all about and understand what draws hundreds to the race. In only two minutes and 21 seconds, Merrill has told a compelling story, and she didn’t have to write or say anything. In this way visual journalism takes the middle man — the journalist — out of the equation and takes the audience directly to the story and the subjects.

The biggest challenge of visual journalism isn’t doing it, it’s doing it well. Taking pictures, shooting video and collecting audio is nice, but the editing process is perhaps more important than it is for written work. Merrill does a great job of editing in her story about the rescue Labradoodle who hopes to be adopted by President Obama. Merrill does a great job in detail with this piece. Notice at the 30 second mark when she mentions the dog’s hypoallergenic coat that she uses a close-up photo of the Labradoodle’s fur to illustrate the point. Also at the four-minute mark, Merrill used the b roll of the dog licking the camera to go along with the voiceover of the owner saying what a joy the dog is. That is attention to detail, and shows great editing skills, the most important factor for good visual storytelling.

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