How Emily Kassie brings a fresh eye to well-covered stories
Sexual assault. Reproductive rights. Religious intolerance. Each subject has been picked over by journalists thousands of times as fresh stories tumble from the news cycle.
At The Huffington Post, multimedia journalist Emily Kassie has homed in on ways to approach those well-worn subjects in order to make them stand out.
Kassie, who has tackled multiple deep-dive projects with The Huffington Post, recently joined up with outlet's new longform initiative, HuffPost Highline. Poynter talked to her before the initiative's first story went live to discuss The Huffington Post's growing emphasis on video and her approach to producing multimedia projects. The questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
How did you come to The Huffington Post?
Well, it's a funny story. I had been doing a lot of documentary work throughout my time in college. I spent a lot of time in East Africa, and I was kind of stuck in this world between documentary film and journalism. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do — did I want to make another feature documentary, or did I want to jump into journalism and become a writer? At the time, Huffington Post hadn't really jumped into original video content, especially documentary content. I saw an opportunity and pitched this idea of trying out original video for them and was able to come on and begin this push — which we're really excited about — to make this a multimedia publication.
Can you tell me about one of your recent projects?
I recently came out with a story called "What It Means To Be Muslim In America.” The story is a multimedia project with nine animated videos, and each of the videos is a story from the perspectives of Muslims living in the country. I contacted nine different animators with varied styles of animation, and they came up with these beautiful visual narratives to compliment the stories. I worked with them for the storyboards and directed those pieces, and what we came up with was this kind of cumulation of varied and shared experiences of what it means to be like Muslim in this country.
How did you get that idea, and how did you tackle the reporting?
The way that I approach a story is a little different than text-based journalists. I think about the issue, and then I think about the medium: Is it best told in text? Or photo? Or video? Or interactive? Or illustration? Or some combination? And then I work with my sources. So I thought this would be beautiful in animation, and it helps to paint a story for people and make it relatable with the voices of these different Muslims. So I worked with our religion editors and got a list of a bunch of Muslim-Americans from around the country. I did interviews with all of them, and then I reached out to these animators and sent them an audio clip of the story — the stories are 30 to 40 seconds each — and told them the videos that come to mind for me. They brainstormed as well, and then they came back with a storyboard. We did some revisions, they sent me something again, and ultimately we came up with a complete video narrative.
Can you walk me through how you produce a video project at The Huffington Post? How much time do you spend in the office versus out in the field?
I'm a bit of a one-man show in that I shoot, edit, produce and direct. So I spend about half my time in the field and in the office. For example, for the abortion piece, I went to North Dakota for a week and shot the project, and then I came back and started working on the editing and doing phone interviews. Of course, it actually takes quite a bit longer to do the editing and get it through the news desk, so simultaneously I'll start reporting on other projects. I generally prefer being in the field, meeting people and hearing their stories, but you have to be able to find a narrative when you're shooting a story.
In terms of your time and The Huffington Post's resources, in-depth video projects are a huge commitment. How do you vet those stories before you decide to cover them?
I do a ton of research on what's already out there. For the sexual assault piece, for example, there are so many pieces about a narrative of sexual assault. But as I looked over the landscape of that dialogue, I said, "What's missing here?" And what was really missing, for me, were stories about male victims of sexual assault. And for that, I went up to Brown, where the central character goes to school. And that's what I always look for, and that's how I always pitch it: This is something that's not being told, here's how I'd do it differently, this is what makes it unique and this is what makes it important. And I provide all of that information in a pitch with a budget to whoever the relevant editor is in that situation.
What will you be doing at Highline?
As Highline's multimedia producer, my role is multi-pronged. I'll be doing artistic direction work, conceptualizing the visuals and art for every piece, working with reporters, assigning artists, and working closely with our interactive developer to create powerful multimedia storytelling. I'll also being doing production work, from directing and supervising artists' illustrations and animations, to shooting, photographing and creating art myself. You might even see a few of my own articles in the mix at some point where I'll report, direct, write and shoot.
Why do you gravitate toward multimedia content?
It allows us to understand issues and current events in ways we never really could before. For example, through live-streaming, we can instantly see what's happening on the ground. In documentary, we get to see the narrative play out and connect to the characters as opposed to reading quotes in a story. So it can be a much more visceral experience. But that said — and this is a challenge of visual storytelling — you have to remember that by placing a camera in front of something, we're choosing an angle and a shot and a composition and therefore distorting the narrative to some extent. So one of the key challenges of a multimedia journalist is to make the audience aware of what's missing and provide as much context as possible to understand how the narrative was built.
Correction: A previous photo caption in this story said Kassie was a multimedia producer at HuffPost Highline. In fact, she is the sole multimedia producer there.