Peabody Award-winning video journalist visits Digital Entrepreneurship Speaker Series

Peabody Award-winning video journalist Whitney Shefte of The Washington Post visited the Texas State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Weds, April 1. The Q&A discussion was facilitated by Dr. David Nolan, professor of visual communication at Texas State, as part of the Digital Entrepreneurship Speaker Series.

whitneyshefte - dale

Whitney Shefte answers Dr. David Nolan’s interview questions for the audience
Photo by Dale Blasingame

From Internship to Full-Time Position

Nolan opened the discussion by asking Shefte to describe her duties as Senior Video Journalist at The Washington Post. She explained that she and her team of writers create documentary-style stories, as opposed to traditional broadcast media. Her duties include shooting and editing interviews and B-roll, traveling, and some writing. The opportunity to work with The Washington Post came as a result of a summer internship, which Shefte secured with her skills in editing audio.

“At the time I was hired as an intern, audio slideshows were the hot new thing in web journalism,” she said. “And my audio editing skills blew them away.”

Emotional Storytelling

Pitching many of her ideas to her supervising editors, Shefte takes on stories that are often emotional and difficult to tell. Her work on the four-part series “One family, two sacrifices” tells the story of the Jean and Mary Wise, who had to deal with losing two of their three military sons in battle. The story highlights the surviving brother, who continues to serve.

Shefte also showed a clip of her documentary “A House for Healing”, which tells the story of the patients of Joseph’s House, a hospice center in Washington, D.C. that provides care to the homeless living with HIV/AIDS.

“Once we find our subject and our character, we follow them and try to tell their story,” she said. “By telling their story, we are also telling about the larger issue.”

Photo by The Washington Post

Whitney Shefte – Photo by The Washington Post

The Search for the Best Story

Shefte often works alone, conducting the interview and filming everything by herself, but will sometimes bring along a writer to assist in the storytelling process. In order to get the best angle, Shefte advises journalists to really listen, engage with the subject, and avoid anticipating the next interview question.

“People can sense whether or not you are engaged with them,” she said. “Like with any relationship, if you’re really listening to what they have to say, they’re more likely to open up to you.”

And when the subjects begin to feel comfortable and open up, this is when the journalistic magic happens.

“With storytelling, you’re waiting for moments to happen,” said Shefte. “And those special moments make things like this work.”

When shooting and editing video, the visual component of the story is not the only focus. Shefte explained that a video system that also allows for great audio is always best.

“Audio is super important in visual storytelling,” she said. “Audio is often more important than the video itself.”

But visual storytellers should never rely on audio, especially music, too much.

“Be careful with music,” advised Shefte. “Don’t create a mood that doesn’t exist, or take away from the scene. Music should only be used to enhance the mood.”

The Washington Post Rolls with the Changes

When asked how The Washington Post‘s storytelling efforts have changed in recent years, Shefte explained that the news outlet is constantly finding new ways to communicate.

“Things change all the time,” she said. “We are trying out virtual reality, using Snapchat to tell stories, and finding new platforms on the web to put our long form video. We are also changing our equipment regularly, such as our cameras.”

Measuring Reach and Impact

To assess the impact of Shefte’s team’s work, The Washington Post’s web team uses Omniture’s web analytics services to track page views, measure how long viewers stay on the page, and how they engage with the content.

“We have to look at the analytics in a holistic way,” said Shefte. “Did we promote this content properly? Did we use social media? We have to balance those numbers with our obligation to tell important stories no matter what, even if people do not care about them as much.”

To avoid creative block, Shefte tries to work only on projects that inspire her. When she gets stuck, however, she takes the time to step out of the office, attend events, network, and view the work of others to gain the inspiration to finish her project.

Advice for Future Visual Journalists

When asked what qualities and skills she looks for in adding to her creative team, Shefte explained that students must have some news experience under their belts. She urged the audience members to join their local chapter of the National Press Photographers Association, network with other photojournalists, and apply for internships. The most important part of the application, however, is the digital portfolio, and Shefte encourages young hopefuls to upload their work to a video sharing site, like Vimeo.

“We only accept digital applications,” she said, “and we want to be able to access your stories easily. Ultimately, making it easier for people to see your content is what matters.”

Even though telling emotional stories can sometimes be difficult, their impact on others is what makes them so powerful. Shefte explained that if you don’t feel something as a journalist when telling these stories, you’re not doing it right.

“You have to be a human being first, then a journalist,” she said. “The rest will come naturally.”

The SJMC would like to thank Shefte for visiting the class and imparting her wisdom on visual storytelling and working in media. To view some of her work, please visit her Vimeo page.

The next speaker in the series is Maira Garcia, the senior staff editor on the home page team at The New York Times. The Q&A session will begin at 5 p.m. on Weds, April 15 in Old Main 320, and all are invited to attend. For more information about the speakers or to view the speaker schedule, please visit the Texas State Digital Entrepreneurship website. You can also join the conversation on twitter, using the hashtag #txstdigital.

Story by Cheyenne Meyer

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