Monday, October 22, 2007

Crossng the line . . . wherever that is

I’m comfortable with all but a few decisions I made editing the audio story for the slide show production of “Chalk," but in at least one or two instances I think I crossed a line between journalism and everything else.

Since completing the production, I’ve managed to find very few specific sets of guidelines on the Internet for the ethics of audio editing. Having read everything I can find now makes me wonder what I was thinking with some of these decisions. Evidently, I was thinking more about how to achieve effective story telling in an unfamiliar medium, rather than transferring familiar standards of responsible reporting. The issue isn’t a question of trade offs between the two, but of telling a story in any medium in the right way.

Case #1 – “Chalk is such an easy medium to embrace “

In “Truth in audio” posted on the website Teaching Online Journalism, Mindy McAdams offers the same cardinal rule for audio editing as for written journalism: Never change the meaning of what the person said.

In my interview with the chalk festival chairman I asked what the appeal about chalk was for young and old alike. She started talking about its use by children and went on to explain how the appeal of the chalk festival itself was its primary purpose in having fun. The original segment [click boldface type to listen] lasted 53 seconds, which I cut in half for the production segment. Part of what I cut out was the context of her wonderful, lyrical pronunciation of the word “chalk." However, by dropping out her specific reference to children, I generalized the meaning of her statement to apply chalk’s appeal to everyone, young and old.

Case #2 – Cutting to the bone or beyond?

On the website for The Canadian Journalism Project, Mary McGuire provides more specific applications for audio editing in her article “Ethical guidelines for editing audio.” In her view, it’s okay to cut out most forms of “verbal stalling,” reiterations, and subordinate clauses. It’s okay, according to her, to make edits that help someone sound sharper, tighter and clearer.

In the interview the chairman spent a full minute talking about the event’s growth. I cut the original segment – complete with stalls, reiterations and unfinished sentences – down to less than 15 seconds for the production segment. I left the selected parts in their original order and hopefully preserved their context and meaning, but just where do you draw the line before the cutting becomes excessive?

Case #3 – Shuffling for effect

Not only did I cut down the original segment of the chairman’s reply to my question about the next day’s weather, I shifted parts of her response around her laughter to give a more ironic edge to her reply in the production segment. I have genuine schism over whether this juggling was ethical, because it clearly improved the audio, even though nothing was added. Only the order of the components was changed, but did this change also shift the meaning of what she said, however subtle? If this were a photo, I’d know my ethical limits. You don’t shift pyramids in order to improve the composition of an image. With audio, I’m not so certain about the rules on rearrangements.

Case #4 – A little background music

On the website Pointeronline, Al Tompkins lays down one unequivocal rule in his article “Sliding Sound, Altered Images.” His first edict for audio editing is utterly simple: Do not add. He further cautions against the use of music in journalistic productions if the music was not ambient sound gathered at the same time and place of the story.

I recorded the guitarist playing at the chalk festival, knowing the music might make good a unifying background for the entire production. I added this music track as one more layer of audio for the production, and even had to loop it out to the production length of two and a half minutes, due to its original recording length of only one minute and six seconds. I don’t know what the rules are for the use of ambient sound as imposed background, much less the sort of manipulation involved to make it fit my production needs.

It seems to me that ethical grounding for audio editing is even more important to those of us learning the ropes of audio-driven slide show production than for those learning video production, because we have to start by producing an audio story before adding visuals. Without firm guidelines, the temptation to manipulate audio in the editing process will prove as seductive as the opportunity to “improve” images in Photoshop in our early days of going digital.

I was not surprised to discover that the only audio file I could find posted by the National Press Photographers Association on its website from the 2007 Summit multimedia immersion workshop is the panel discussion on the complex ethical issues emerging from newspaper photojournalism’s transition into multimedia journalism. Nor was the significance lost on me that the one-hour-and-13-minute audio recording was posted in its entirety – unedited.


Unknown said...

These are great questions to ask about one's work. I wrote a post on my blog about your post.

cmulvany said...

I too share your ethical questions every time I start to whack a long narrative audio track. What you have to understand is that if we don't edit narrative down to it core meaning then, for the most part, the story will suffer. People have short attention spans when it comes to multimedia productions. Well-crafted, tightly edited visual stories get viewed. I watched your Chalk piece and was impressed. You did a great job of crafting a simple story that had a strong voice with several secondary voices.

The way I look at editing audio is that I must always be true to what the subject intended. A lot of times as you are editing audio you will find the subject says things that have the same meaning over and over. I pick the best chunk of narrative and cut loose the rest. I am careful of internal edits in that I make sure before I cut that I am not changing the meaning of what the subject is saying. I do clean the audio of ums, pauses, stumbles etc. Removing them does not change the meaning. NPR does this, so if figure I am on solid ethical ground. I look at editing audio in the same way a reporter writes a story. Their quotes are not always linear so neither does my audio need to be in a slideshow or a video.

Music in your Chalk piece is OK, but really isn't needed. If you had had a picture of the guy playing, it would have connected the music to the event.

I would have liked to hear more ambient sound from this event. A sound of chalk scraping on the sidewalk, a touch of crowd noise in the background. The music takes away from any ambient you might have added.

Watching the video a second time, I find the music a bit annoying. The levels are too high and it plays throughout the show. If you use music in your next piece, think about ducking it. That means raising and lowering the levels. So when the main person begins to speak, you lower the music track way down, and then bring it back up when they finish. Just remember that music is not a substitute for great natural sound.

Colin Mulvany
Multimedia Editor