RFA: Making Long-Form Video Journalism

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Catherine Antoine, Director and Managing Editor of Radio Free Asia (RFA) Online, took on an incredible challenge: to design long-form video documentaries about the ever-changing human landscapes of the Mekong River and the human trafficking cases that traverse it.

Mekong Diary-The Source of the Mekong

“We first produced the Mekong River Diaries, a series of 26 web-based videos and two half-hour TV documentaries, in 2009-10. We won the 2010 Society of Environmental Journalists Award for (the Mekong River Diaries).  Then, on the heels of this success, we launched an investigation into human trafficking that is still going on. We won the 2012 Hong Kong Human Rights Journalism award for the Human Trafficking series.” –Catherine Antoine, Director and Managing Editor of Radio Free Asia

The Undertaking


The Mekong River springs from Tibet and flows through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Our reporters followed its course towards the South China sea. (Source: RFA)

Just like the intriguing long-form video documentaries produced by goodmorningbeautiful Films that “find stories from the edge of the world”, RFA wanted to identify its own part of the world that received little journalistic coverage.  “We always had wanted to cover the lives of people living on and alongside the Mekong River”, Antoine explains, “one of the last untamed rivers in the world.” The river traverses a huge stretch in Asia, yet is undergoing radical developmental changes that are affecting the lives of everyday people.  “We knew time was running out…a chance encounter with the goodmorningbeautiful Films crew at PBS was our chance,” added Antoine.


Getting What You Need

Antoine was overjoyed when she received the go-ahead from Vice-President and Executive Editor of RFA, Dan Southerland.  Immediately upon her project’s approval, she reached out to RFA staff in the overseas bureaus in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Hong Kong to obtain some support from stringers (freelancers/translators) within the several countries that border the Mekong River.

Over the span of about one and a half years, RFA producers and stringers planned out a way to cover the real situation along the Mekong River from the ground up.  Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the project, according to Antoine, was how to not make the topic so depressing.  This was particularly important since the documentary would cover cases of kidnapping environmental degradation, and women’s/children’s health.  With some proper coaching, Antoine and her team helped her movie-making team understand that they must keep their emotional cool and not become activists for a particular cause.  She advised her crew to find motives for each case that they covered—good or bad—and to find a reason to give people hope at the end of the documentary. “Focus on how people overcome adversity,” became her mantra.

She advised them to think about their own stretch of the river that they are most familiar with and to research the most impending issues for the local people.  She also got in touch with RFA’s office in Bangkok to ask for their assistance in recruiting the right fixers.  Meanwhile, Antoine worked with the multimedia team in Washington DC to find the right way to present the project over time. The large number of videos, text and photos required a number of experiments before the right template could be finalized.


Pack Your Bags

RFA’s producers and stringers traveled throughout China, Tibet, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam over the span of several months collecting interviews, obtaining footage, and trying to fact check as much as possible (sometimes 2-3 times over).  Interestingly enough, one of the most valuable assets that RFA had was one of their cameramen.  Antoine discovered that he was an amazing writer, so she asked him to start a blog.

E-Book Evolution


A look inside the e-book for Mekong Diaries: Tibet. At the start of a journey down the Mekong River, Radio Free Asia’s cameraman discovers Tibet, its ancient traditions and its stunning sites. (Source: RFA)

With the content from the cameraman’s blog, came the idea for e-books.  To date, there are two e-books available.  These e-books were combined with several others to create a bookshelf, or flip-book, on the website.  Using Javascript to create turnable pages, Antoine hopes that this new style of media can be easily downloaded as a PDF or e-book then uploaded to a user’s e-book reader.  Antoine and her team are also evaluating new ways to promote the e-books and how to use them to make a positive impact.


ODDI, We Need You

Antoine shared how excited she is to collaborate on programming projects with the Office of Digital and Design Innovation (ODDI) to improve the e-book usability, visibility, and branding.  With all of the tools accessible to the BBG entities, RFA hopes that ODDI can help suggest new avenues to syndicate the e-books.

The Future of RFA’s Long-Form Journalism

With the success of the Mekong River documentary and Human Trafficking series, Antoine foresees “more comprehensive” projects in the near future.  “For the next project already planned for fiscal 2012-13, we want to include more citizen reporting and social media,” Antoine elaborated, “but this is really difficult because many of the areas that we covered are subject to censorship.”  In addition to the issue of censorship, Antoine noted the difficulty of reaching out to populations who have Internet access (though not necessarily broadband), but who communicate in languages not yet supported by Twitter.  Alternatively, with the ease of creating Facebook tabs/apps that allow locals to upload images and video to Facebook (along with the ability of Facebook to auto-translate non-English posts), RFA staff can work on strategies to solicit more user-generated content.  While it is not the mission of RFA to produce English-speaking content, it is important to be able to have a way to share all content across a wider base.


New Training


Although it is estimated that 50% of all tweets are in English, Twitter is now available in 28 languages.

Many of the RFA producers and stringers are familiar with shortwave radio, but not with the intricacies of all the new tools available to Web and mobile users. “Producing online content is different than producing content for the air,” Antoine noted, “So, RFA is on a mission to make all content multi-platform.”  For stringers, it is important to show exactly what you expect from them.  With formal digital journalism training, more fantastic documentaries and online content can be produced and easily shared.

Producers at the language services within the RFA also need continuing training for how to evaluate and vet user-generated content.  This is particularly difficult because there is often a lack of names attached to image or video submissions due to the fear of being discovered.  However, these people can be tracked down and vetted on the ground.  So it may become increasingly more important for local offices, such as RFA’s office in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Hong Kong to follow up with sources as best they can.


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(Thank you to Catherine Antoine for her contributions to this post.  She can be contacted at: antoinec@rfa.org)

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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April Deibert

April Deibert

April Deibert is the Multimedia Blogger/Producer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow her on Twitter: @BBGinnovate and @AprilDeibert.

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