Audio journalism I: Defining the field – the power and importance of sound

  • A clarion call for journalism instructors to think beyond the strictures of radio and to teach audio journalism — using sound as a reporting tool — to all of their students.

Now that the web has freed sound from the confines of radio, audio journalism needs to be a part of the skill set of every reporter. This series of articles sets out the parameters of audio journalism and outlines some of the things that we journalism educators need to be teaching our students.

Audio journalism is reporting news and information with sound. Doing this was once the exclusive domain of radio, and truthfully, it wasn’t much of a kingdom. Except for National Public Radio and the efforts of a few isolated individuals and organizations, radio journalism has been a vast and neglected wasteland. Even where radio journalism was good — and on NPR it could be very good — it was still confined to the medium and restricted by time, programming constraints and geography.

The emergence of the web as a dominant news medium has freed radio journalism — what we can more properly call audio journalism — from those restraints.

The advantages of learning and using audio as a reporting tool are legion:

  • It is easy to produce. The equipment necessary for recording can fit into your shirt pocket. The software (Audacity is among the best) is simple and can be mastered quickly.
  • Sound can take a story beyond text (just as pictures can). Sound gives readers/listeners to a story an added dimension that nothing else can duplicate.
  • Audio literally gives sources a “voice.” By using sound rather than text, their words, tones and inflections can be heard, not just described. Ambient sound can give these voices added context that increases the richness of the reporting.
  • Sound allows listeners to “see” with the best lens of all, the mind.
    A personal example: For years, I have shocked people by telling them that as a baseball fan, I would much rather listen to a radio broadcast of a game with a good announcer (great ones include Jack Buck [deceased], Vince Scully, and Ernie Harwell) than watch the game on television. The reason: Video cameras are too confining; they do not give me a picture of the whole field or even a significant portion of it. If I am listening to it, however, I can “see” everything, and the experience is much more enjoyable and fulfilling.
  • The idea of audio journalism at this point is largely unexplored. That means that the people who get into it now have an opportunity to define the form. They can experiment and be creative without having the burdens of “tradition” or the concept of “best practices.”
  • Audio is a presentation form that allows the audience to multitask. Reading text and watching video demand the full attention of the visitor. Audio lets the audience do something else in addition to taking in the information. As the demand for consumer time increases, this will continue to be an important consideration for the web journalist.

Finally, audio journalism is important because it is the dominant form of information distribution on The Next Big Thing in Journalism: mobile journalism. Despite all the current attention to texting, web site scaling and video on cellphones and hand-held devices, people generally use these devices to talk and to receive sound, either from other talkers or from audio producers.

All of these are compelling reasons why we journalism educators need to pay serious attention to the concept and forms of audio journalism. We need to teach our students how to use sound effectively in their report, both as a main form of storytelling and to supplement text, pictures and other formats at our disposal.

Two subsequent posts will outline how we can begin this process:

Audio journalism II: What journalism students should know – uses, forms and formats

Audio journalism III: Training journalism students – recording, editing and distribution

(Updated March 7, 2009, to include link to Audio journalism II.)

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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