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Making Investigative Reports Look Good

An investigative report can be the sexiest part of a newscast, but serious reports that involve reams of documents and lots of number crunching can also be among the most difficult to bring to life on screen.

Nancy Amons of WSMV Nashville, Tenn.; Tony Pipitone of WKMG Orlando, Fla.; and Aaron Wische of KVTV Fort Worth, Texas, discussed the challenges at last month's Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Miami.

Amons said one of the keys is to get a photojournalist on your side from the very beginning of the process. "To get best out of photojournalists, you need to treat the photographer as a full and equal partner and explain as much as possible in advance," she said.

Those she works with typically do their own graphics and editing, in addition to the camera work. Making sure that they understand the nature of the story and who the main characters are allows them to gather the right video upfront, simplifying the production process later.

Giving them an appropriate amount of time to work with the material is also important -- even if some things have to wait for the last minute, provide as much as possible as early as possible and you'll get a more creative result, she said, adding, "A three-minute story will take an entire day to edit."

Rather than simply presenting a screen full of statistics, Amons' team likes to superimpose the numbers over some relevant background image -- for example, if the story is about the trucking industry, the video might be of trucks driving past on the highway. Wische used a similar effect for an influence-peddling investigation, where documents (and the highlighted phrases and numbers within them) were displayed superimposed over video of parties thrown by the rich and powerful in Dallas.

"When you're dealing with very document-heavy stuff, the question is how to make them come alive," Wische said. "Getting the documents to the editor early is important because that can be 60%-70% of the editing process."

He also likes to use "math made easy" techniques to graphically walk the viewer through a series of numbers and show how they add up.

Pipitone said that for one of his reports, "the documents were the story" because his investigation had produced so many of them -- to the extent that his photographer spent three hours shooting a room filled with stacks of banker's boxes packed with papers from many different angles just so that they could show it repeatedly during their report without being repetitive. In the narration for the story, he also used an audio cue "from the files" as a cue to the viewer that he was about to dive into the details.

Another common technique with many variations is to highlight relevant sections of documents and pan between them, adding a sense of motion and moving the story forward. Specific software that the panelists recommended for achieving these effects included Adobe's Photoshop and After Effects, as well as features of Apple's FinalCut Pro and the Avid Technologies editing suite.