Nashville TV station’s surveillance crash story shows how to write to video

WTVF reporter Nick Beres is a veteran reporter who knows how to work fast, but I think one of his best skills is writing to the video. The story that Nick produced Monday required his best work.

This remarkable story from the Nashville station -- crafted with surveillance video -- is about a man who crashed into a quick market gas station and what happened next. Watch the piece, then we'll discuss what it teaches about great writing. My interview with Nick is below.

Let's face it, Nick had very little, other than the surveillance tapes, to work with. He had almost no audio except for a soundbite from the son. So the story would be almost 100 percent voice over video. To make that work, Nick explains the video, he doesn't narrate it. That is the key to writing to video. Don't compete with the images, and don't say what I can already see. Tell me what I would not know from watching the video.

Let's get specific about how he does it:

  • Nick draws your attention to the woman who ran into the store.
  • Nick explains the crash.
  • Nick points out the clerk getting hit.
  • Nick explains that the clerk is fine.
  • Then he explains that the driver is fine, and is looking for the woman.
  • Nick helps you see the woman escaping.
  • Nick then calls your attention to the nurse.
  • He explains that the guy is stealing the nurse's truck.
  • Nick focuses our attention on the bread truck crash, replaying it so you could pay closer attention to what happened.

I asked Nick about how he approached this story:

Al Tompkins: This story is remarkable, partly because you so clearly explain the video we are seeing. What is your rule of thumb about what makes great copy and what is better left to soundbites or just let the viewer figure it out from the video?

Nick Beres: I don't know that I have a rule of thumb. I kind of just take it story by story. Sometimes my approach works ... and there certainly have been times when my writing could have been better. In this case, it was pretty obvious what to do. When photographer Alex Lucas and I first screened the surveillance video we both knew we had something very compelling -- beyond the usual or ordinary. I figured, keep it simple. The video tells the story. But we had the luxury of playing it over and over for ourselves. The viewer does not. They get one chance.  And I know with grainy surveillance video it's hard to take everything in at once. So I decided in this case to explain or guide the viewer through the video rather than narrate. I wanted to literally tell them where to look. I emphasized to Alex not to be afraid to repeat the same shot. Don't worry about clean sequences. Be redundant ... zoom in ... highlight ... whatever. I just want the viewer's eyes to go where they need to go.

In the story, you sound as if you are talking directly to the viewer.  At 1:53 you say, "freeze it, right here, you see that woman he passes?" Then at 2:05 you say "you saw that, right?" Tell me your thinking behind this style of yours.

We had to hustle back with the video and I wanted to get the script to Alex with as much time as possible to edit. So I literally wrote the script in about 15 minutes. And to use a sports analogy I decided to do kind of a play-by-play. In sports, commentators sometimes freeze a key moment in a game: Say a player's foot on the out-of-bounds line.  This gives the viewer a chance to see for themselves. Same thing here at 1:53. I wanted the viewer to see just how close the suspect came to the woman whose car he was about to steal. Then at the end of  the story, instead of freezing his collision with the bread truck -- we ran it. And I figured the viewer -- already overwhelmed with the craziness -- would not believe their eyes when they saw that happen. So, I wanted to emphasize -- yup ... you saw that right ... and we ran the video again.

How did you gather all of this video when it is apparently evidence in a serious crime?

I could tell you how I obtained the video. But then I'd have to kill you.

You didn't just stop at the video, you also acquired the 911 audio.  Why?

There was no natural sound on the surveillance video. I was content to simply use my audio to explain and use a couple of brief comments from the the victim's son. But I also figured the 911 call -- if it was compelling -- would add a bit of real-time urgency to what the viewer was seeing.  A nice touch.

Alex did finish with time to spare and we reviewed it twice.  Each time we changed it a bit to add even more repetition -- which can go against your natural instincts in TV news.  But with video like this, it was worth it.  And I'm learning that this style can apply to any number of stories. Like I say -- case by case.

OK, I have to ask, did you MEAN for you and the anchor to say "amazing" seven times in the course of this story?

Caught in the moment. It's simply AMAZING someone didn't come up and slap me in the head when I said that a 7th time.

Not many stories live up to the word "amazing." I have to say, this one did.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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