One day in Detroit: Stories come to life through journalistic film

As part of my multiplatform journalism (MPJ) course, we were challenged to seek out a good example of a past MPJ project and explain why it was appealing to us.  I immediately thought of the video projects often posted on The New York Times’ website.

The specific MPJ project that came to mind was a sort of mini-documentary that I saw on the New York Times website months ago called Dismantling Detroit.  In just over five minutes, this Op-Doc, as they call it on the website, paints a picture of the immense economic struggle in the city of Detroit by following a group of men who collect scrap metal from abandoned buildings around the city to sell and make a living.  In the process, the story morphs into one not only about Detroit, but about the United States as a whole and its upward battle to remain an economic superpower in a post-Cold War world.

I was originally drawn to the story because I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit (in an area much different than the city itself) and have always been fascinated with the history of Detroit and the stigma surrounding it.  However, the reason this story stuck with me was not only the subject matter, but the way in which it was presented.  Using a video to present this story made the piece much more intriguing and harrowing than I think it would have been if presented through traditional print journalism.

The video made use of a number of techniques to present the story, which, in combination, made for an aesthetically-stimulating, unique piece of journalism.  While most journalistic pieces are filled with the author’s voice — either in writing or from the mouth of a reporter on camera — this video took a different approach.  In fact, there is no speaking at all during the first part of the video.  Instead, the viewer faces artistic camera shots of the men working, compiled with loud, harsh raw audio.  Eventually, a single fact appears on the screen in text, before fading away again.  This happens a few times throughout the video — simple text provides a startling fact or figure, while the action of the video continues in the background.

When someone finally does speak, it is not a reporter.  Instead, the scrap metal collectors unknowingly weave together an intricate story through their candid dialogue.  The viewer never hears any questions being asked.  The men simply talk with one another and a story is born all on its own.  I thought that was part of what made this story brilliant.  Though it strays from any set journalistic standards, one cannot help but be drawn into the scene.  I think it helps to make everything feel more authentic.

The video uses other techniques, as well, such as voiceovers.  A number of voiceovers are featured in the second half of the video.  They enhance the piece by providing more facts and figures, like one would find in a regular print story.  However, the facts shared are made all the more interesting by the landscape that is being shown on camera at the same time.  The combination of words and visuals gives the commentary a greater power.

The combination of solid journalism, excellent storytelling, creative techniques and a new style of sharing stories makes Dismantling Detroit an excellent example of multiplatform journalism at its finest.

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