Tools for Mobile Journalism: Breaking Broadcast News from the Scene

By in Broadcast, News Production

Being first with breaking news or buzzworthy video in today’s ultracompetitive broadcast news environment means—first and foremost—being mobile.

The days of scrambling the satellite truck are now few and far between. More reporters work remotely, often by themselves, to track down and deliver news as it happens. Luckily, one of the best tools for journalists to break the story first is something they already carry: a smartphone.

Smartphones

There’s no faster or more cost-effective way to broadcast live from a breaking news scene than with a phone. Journalists can “go live” on mobile within minutes, as long as they have access to a network.

Smartphones fit a shocking number of features into a compact and lightweight package. Not only can they record a video, they can actually do it well—and still have the capability to edit and share that high-quality footage, or store up to 512 GB of photos and video (even 1 TB with a MicroSD card).

Some phones have multiple cameras (ultrawide, wide, and telephoto) that create the option to change the framing of a shot without moving. Some newer cameras also have larger image sensors and use AI to capture both photos and surprisingly noise-free video in dimly lit locations and at night.

The latest generations of phones are also water- and dust-resistant (sadly, not drop-proof . . . yet), meaning they can stand up to harsh environmental conditions on location.

While many smartphones now have built-in optical image stabilization systems to help prevent shaky video, a tripod and an accessory mount or grip are still essential for those times your hands need a hand. Look for grips that are spring-loaded so they fit all phone sizes. The grip should also have a 1/4 in-20 UNC threaded screw to attach to a tripod and at least one cold shoe to connect accessories like a small light.

Microphones

The built-in microphones on smartphones are improving, but they’re not always up to par. An external microphone can quickly become one of the best tools for journalists who need to capture true broadcast-quality sound.

A lavaliere mic, also known as a lav mic, clip, or lapel mic, can be clipped onto a lapel or collar. It’s the ideal location to capture interviews and standups, especially in noisy environments.

Most smartphone lav mics plug into the headphone jack or lightning connector, meaning Bluetooth earbuds or an adaptor cable for headphones make the perfect pairing to monitor audio while recording.

Lighting

As far as image sensor technology used in phones has progressed, the sensors themselves are still small. Considering how low-light conditions create a challenge for even broadcast news cameras, it pays to be prepared.

A wide variety of small battery-operated lights were designed specifically for phones. Look for a light that allows manual brightness adjustment. Some also come with snap-on filters to diffuse light and adjust color temperature.

Avoid lights that attach by way of the phone’s headphone jack or lightning connector, since chances are there will be an external mic already plugged into that. Opt for shoe-mount lights instead.

Editing and Sharing

While the newsroom has to access footage before distribution to apply advertising or watermarks, reporters can make some edits from the scene so it’s as close to publish-ready as possible.

The built-in camera app on many devices lets journalists trim the in-and-out points of a clip and make simple adjustments to exposure and color balance. Cropping the video to different aspect ratios, such as 1:1 or 16:9, to suit various social platforms may not even require moving to a different app.

To edit together multiple video clips, adjust audio levels, or add text, mobile journalists typically rely on a video editing app. There are many available—both free and paid—depending on the make of the phone. Look for apps that allow for control over video export settings, including file size and resolution, and the ability to save videos directly to cloud-based folders for sharing. These apps are great for a quick fix, especially if you’re going for a raw look. But if you’re shooting for an in-depth package, you’ll likely need greater editing ability to get it newsroom-ready.

Collaborating in the Cloud

Mobile journalists with a laptop and a solid internet connection can access collaborative media platforms like Avid’s MediaCentral to upload raw video directly from the field.

These platforms address some of the main challenges of a mobile workflow. Media asset management on a smartphone can present its own obstacles, with limited ways to create and organize folders. The same goes for sending large video files back to the station. These videos need to be ingested into the newsroom editing system and transcoded before the eyes of the world turn to them.

Signing in to a cloud-based collaborative media platform gives journalists immediate access to the newsroom system. They can upload raw video directly so it can be accessed and edited by every member of the team in real-time without ever leaving the scene of the story.

With ever-increasing mobile internet speeds and 5G around the corner, mobile journalism is the new workflow for breaking the story first. Are you ready?

Image by Marco Verch, used under a Creative Commons license

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Cindy Burgess is a Toronto journalist, educator, and entrepreneur with more than 25 years of experience working with video