Snow-blind: The challenge of voice and vision in multi-media storytelling

winter snowy background blizzard, frost

There has been no American feature story more honored – or over-praised – than “Snow Fall” by the New York Times. I don’t want the key word in that last sentence – over-praised – to detract from the story’s historic achievement. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for feature writing; it set a standard for multi-media reporting at a time when we were wondering about the viability of that form of storytelling; and it attracted attention from far and wide, lending encouragement that journalism in the digital age has an exciting future.

Cheers to the writer, John Branch, to graphics director Steve Duenes, and to the team that created it.

Much of the original praise for the work was worshipful and, I believe, superficial. The dazzling visual effects were there for all to see and left potential critics, dare I use the term, snow-blind.

“Snow Fall” is many good things, but great storytelling is not one of them. I will argue that the innovative visual elements that brought it fame detract from the power of the narrative.

(Let me say that it is exactly this kind of work – impressive and innovative – that deserves our sharpest critical attention over time, the way that the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt received darts from critics such as Francine Prose and James Woods.)

The criticisms I bring to “Snow Fall” are mine and mine alone, which is not to say that I am a voice in the wilderness. After the critical euphoria that followed publication, a more sober reflection became possible only with the passage of time. That’s why I am weighing in now. It also provides an opportunity to articulate standards and strategies for what constitutes excellence in multimedia storytelling.

I began to hear tough questions about the “Snow Fall” story – its methods and effects – in coffee-houses where writers meet, at narrative conferences, in newsroom and classrooms. It did not come from jealousy or fear, but from an honest desire to know the strengths and limitations of such an approach.

Using the first section of the story as a kind of microcosm – and encouraging you all to read that much, at least – I offer the following critiques:

1. Most of the visual elements violate the essential credo of effective storytelling: Not to give away too much too soon.
2. Time and again the visual elements “step on the narrative.”
3. There is a “kitchen sink” feel to the visual aspects of the story.
4. The first section of text feels out of tune with the second.
5. Most of all, there is no harmony between what I would call the Voice of the story and its Vision.

Let me expand on these, in order:

1. Giving it away: Is “Snow Fall” a “what” narrative or a “how” narrative? It makes a difference. In a “what” narrative, the reader is driven to learn what happens next. In a “how” narrative, the reader may already knows what happened, but is eager to learn how it happened. “Snow Fall” can’t decide. As a result, there is no “engine” in the story, no driving force of curiosity, as in “who will live and who will die.” Early in the story, we are introduced to a video interview of one of the survivors. We see her whole and healthy, speaking from some unknown location, at a physical and temporal distance from the action described in the story. And yet here is the text beside her image: “Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.”

This feels like one of a number of instances in which the textual and visual elements are out of sync.

2. Stepping on narrative: The storytelling that begins “Snow Fall” is of high quality. It shows everything you would want from a narrative: intense scenic action, a dramatic setting, characters we might come to care about, and a cataclysmic inciting incident – an avalanche — so powerful that it transforms a landscape and the humans who enter it. The defining effect of narrative is to create a vicarious experience, to inhabit a world, to be there – on the snow and then in the snow and then buried by snow. The problem is that the narrative line is interrupted, time and again, by elements that are marginal to the storytelling. Embedded in the text are tiny icons that signify the visual tools: a video, a slide show. Every time I clicked on one of these, it took me away from the story. Instead of time moving, time was frozen, so to speak. Narratives are, by definition, linear (although they can contain more than one line). And it is possible to create narratives with multi-media components: text, visuals, audio, music and much more. We have a name for these. We call them movies.

3. Kitchen sink: I’m trying to learn the names for all the multi-media effects use in “Snow Fall.” There is a title page on a mountaintop, where the snow seems to be blowing; there is the way a text or image seems to surface from the bottom of the page before you’ve scrolled down to it; there are videos and slide shows; still photographs; a turning aerial view as if seen from a drone. It is the accumulation of visual elements that created the Gee Whiz response from admirers. But why all these elements? Perhaps a little selectivity was in order. It was Miles Davis, the jazz artist, who talked about how long it took to learn which notes to leave out.

4. Out of tune: Most of my argument is predicated on some sort of disharmony between the words and visuals in “Snow Fall,” but there is also a case to be made about dissonance in the text itself. Even without the visual elements, we would find interruptions in the narrative. The second part, titled “Tunnel Creek” feels as if written in a different voice from the opening scenes. This is a predictable and acceptable practice in all forms of journalism. One genre is called the “broken line,” a hybrid of narrative and informational reporting, the kind of news feature story that might begin with a narrative lead and be followed by a nut graph. Books by authors such as John McPhee, who tends to tell stories about people and their passions, move easily between explanatory and storytelling modes.

But I have a confession here. On three separate tries I was not able to navigate easily through the text of the Tunnel Creek section, which describes topography and history, not because the prose is insufficient, but because it felt like such a departure from the vivid style that begins the piece.

5. Voice and Vision: I believe I can summarize my critique in talking about two effects of creative journalism, one which I will call Voice and the other Vision. Each one can be perceived in a story, especially a work created through a multi-media approach. Each one is a collection of choices made by the writer and producer – in collaboration, one would hope.

Let’s start with Voice, and I’ll borrow my definition from Poynter friend and colleague Don Fry: “Voice is the sum of all the choices made by the writer that create the illusion that the writer is speaking off the page directly to the reader.” The reason you can identify – without bylines – the author of columns by Anna Quindlen and Maureen Dowd is all about voice. Even if the topic is the same, they SOUND different.
So what are some of those choices, the writer might make:

– The level of language, from slang to formal.
– The type of narration, from first person to third person.
– The story form, from experimental to conventional.
– The stance from neutral to partisan.

–The language, from plain to metaphorical.

Using Voice as an analogy, let me attempt a parallel definition for Vision. “Vision is that quality created by the sum of all the choices made by the designer or artist, the effect of which is a unified way of seeing, as if we were all looking through the same lens.”

So what are some of the choices the visual journalist might make that would influence vision?:

– The decision to use color or black and white.
– The development of a color palette consistent with the content and purpose of the work.
– The decision to use visual images as decorative, illustrative, or documentary in nature.
– The choice of visual platforms from still images to video to animation.
– The level of visual elements, from popular and commercial to high art.
– The choice of typefaces.

The more that the collaborators can discuss in advance the elements of voice and vision, the more they can channel their moves to fulfill the mission and purpose of the work, the more successful will be the experience of the audience.

Let’s take an example of another New York Times multi-media story that, in my opinion, offers a more successful marriage of Voice and Vision. The work is called Tomato Can Blues, written by Mary Pilon, and tells the story of a marginal cage fighter who fakes his own death because he owes money to drug dealers.

The tone of the piece, and the elements of the prose style, is reflected in the title. In the slang of the fight game a Tomato Can is a journeyman boxer who almost always loses and who takes a lot of punishment, getting beat to a bloody pulp – like the contents of a can of tomatoes. That slang, that grit, that working class lingo seeks its equivalent in the visual elements, which it finds in the comic book/graphic novel illustrations of Attila Futaki, who created them journalistically, based them on “police records, witness accounts, photographs and the reporter’s notes.” There is even an audio element that matches the words and visuals and is recited by Bobby Cannavale, an actor known for his work on gangland shows like Boardwalk Empire.

So there you have it, one work in which Voice and Vision seem slightly out of tune, and another where they work in close harmony. I look forward to the next experiment in multi-media storytelling by the New York Times and other media organizations.

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  • Robert Frederick

    I agree with some of these points, but there’s not yet a lot of scholarship (or practice) regarding multimedia, including the proper timing of the start of a collaboration, which you seem to lament as not having started soon enough. Certainly, Branch would like to report every story with a videographer alongside (see my interview with him here ) but very often there aren’t the resources to begin collaborating on a multimedia treatment of a story until at least one person has reported the story. For Snow Fall, Branch told me that the whole story started as him just re-reporting another writer’s story because his editor thought there was something more there. In the end, after the multimedia treatment was approved, Branch simultaneously believes both that the ‘text is king’ — so that the multimedia treatment was just accompaniment — and that he might have written it differently ‘had there not been the accompanying multimedia elements.’ It’s still a confusing time, especially for writers. What’s needed is more scholarship (and the dissemination thereof) on multimedia, but I appreciate your criticism nonetheless.

  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    Snow Fall and other innovations like “Explanatory Journalism” are going to be worthless solutions because they don’t have any impact on journalism’s biggest flaw.
    Look at the federal tax code. There have been many news reports on the tax code since the 1986 reforms and everyone knows that the code has been repeatedly corrupted by lobbyists. But the voters have never done anything to stop Congress from creating at least one new tax deduction for every special interest group with enough money for many large campaign contributions. So all of the hard work by the reporters was an almost complete waste of time. Their only positive accomplishment was the money they earned for entertaining both voters and politicians with gotchas. Which is why they are failing to communicate. Reporters are entertaining customers instead of educating voters. Even surveys by the news media, and by comedians with people standing in line to vote, have shown repeatedly that most voters are too ignorant to vote intelligently. As a result, everyone knows the tax code has been corrupted but very few voters really know what’s in it. Therefore politicians don’t have to really listen to their voters because the voters are too stupid and the lobbyists are too smart.
    But no one in the journalism profession seems to be interested in communicating like a teacher by publishing an annual one week review of events and conditions. Everyone is behaving like the doctors of the nineteenth century who refused to start washing their hands after seeing the evidence that they were killing their patients. So as a teacher or professor, would you please tell me why reporters don’t want to work harder and smarter? No one in the news media,,, and at the Poynter Institute, seems to understand that a teacher would be fired if her lectures were as disorganized as the events that reporters must investigate. Hopefully you know the difference between educating voters and entertaining customers.
    Stanley Krauter
    Lincoln, Nebraska

  • Melanie Faizer

    I agree wholeheartedly with this. In any case, thank you for the article, which is now added to the collection of class reading!

  • Roy Peter Clark

    Thank you, Professor Faizer, for this good comment. Maybe the lesson should be something like this: Can the key players agree at the front end of the creative process what they want the effect of the work to be. If it is the vicarious experience of a story, then I would argue that a strong narrative line is appropriate. If it is to create a variety of entry points into a body of knowledge, than a non-linear approach makes sense. In either case, collaboration is the path to the best work. Thanks.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    Stuart, thank you for this. When we talk about the writing process at Poynter, we often pay special attention to the FOCUS of a story or investigation. The focus of the story involves the question: “What is this really about?” That focus, we argue, can and should be reflected in a headline, lead, nut graph, theme statement, etc. When we looked at the parts of a package: words, visuals, etc., we would ask “Is everyone here on the same page?” There were times, for example, when a game story would have one focus: the quarterback sucked; but then the photograph showed his one touchdown pass and not one of his six interceptions. I do think we have some very good and reliable models in everything from movies to operas, platforms in which each artist in a separate discipline tries to do the best work as part of a coherent whole. Voice and Vision.

  • Stuart Warner

    Interesting discussion. Remember, Roy, when all we had to deal with was story, headline, photos and captions? We have so many tools to enhance the story now. A recent project I worked on (not a narrative) involved 12,000 plus words, a half-dozen or so videos, interactive graphics, two photo galleries, different presentations for mobile and desktop, social media preview and translation for our Spanish-language publication. Oh, yeah, there was a print package, too. All of the extras have the ability to enhance the reader’s journey, or detract from it. It’s still a learning process for me and many others, I suspect, but I think we need to let the readers take the trip at their own pace … stopping to watch a video or click through a photo gallery when they want to … and hoping that they remain engaged enough to continue with the story. We are still experimenting with longform online presentation. The template we have is quite attractive, but I’m afraid we sometimes stop the readers unnecessarily. Other times everything works in harmony. At least, with Chartbeat metrics, we can determine where we have stopped them or when they have continued to read on and hopefully learn from our experiences. My guess is that multi-media editors are going to have to learn to take a page from movie directors and storyboard these projects for maximum impact.

    My thought when I first read Snow Fall that the graphics forced themselves on me at times, rather than giving me a choice on how I wanted to proceed. But they were damn impressive.

  • Melanie Faizer

    I agree with some of the points in here. I would argue, though, that nonlinearity is part of multimedia, and seamlessness (or a uniform style) is not always the goal. It is a huge piece, and the discrete parts all serve different purposes. I perceive the stylistic divergences as quite intentional. The stories of the characters must be told at a different pace, and with different language, than that used to describe the workings of an avalanche, for example. (I teach this story in a multimedia storytelling class at U of Tennessee — students tend to either be swept away by it or somewhat indifferent, so probably many of them would fully agree with Mr. Clark!)