Freelance video journalist Jason N Parkinson shares his eight top tips for aspiring news filmmakers
Freelance Video Journalist Jason N Parkinson © Jess Hurd.
I often find it difficult to offer people advice on how to enter a career in video journalism, simply because I never took the usual route into the industry. In fact, I probably invented my own route. Most people will head towards university, get a degree and apply for the first contract they can land at a major news outlet — that wasn’t the case for me…
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to make films. But growing up in the 1980s, a poor kid from Peterborough had absolutely no access to video cameras, never mind editing equipment! So, I grew up drawing comic strips and spent the first half of the 1990s trying to earn a living from self-published, independent comics. In 1996, I embarked on an eight-year-long career in the flourishing video game industry, working as a 2D concept and 3D in-game artist. I eventually ended up as a video editor, creating game advertising.
It was after 9/11 that I finally took the plunge and signed up to a freelance and feature writing course at the London School of Journalism [LSJ]. I graduated with an Honours Diploma in the summer of 2004. By the time the 2005 G8 summit arrived at Gleneagles, I had snatched my first paid writing gig for the The Herald Scotland. I was carrying a small video camera with me at all times, to record events and refer back to later when producing written pieces. I soon found the footage was making more money than the articles I wrote.
Coupled with my decades of comic book/storytelling experience, editing skills gained in the video game industry and training from my journalism diploma, I was able to make a living, solely, as an independent, freelance video journalist. It only took three years of hard work (and very long hours). So, having now spent 13 years delivering news footage from 15 countries, what advice could I give?
Members of the press wait at Downing Street for the government’s next announcement, the day after a general election, London. © Jason N Parkinson.
1. Don’t wait, get out there and shoot!
Just before Christmas, I received an email from a student asking me for advice on how to get into video journalism. They told me they planned to finish their course and get their qualifications, and then go out and start shooting. Why wait? Why were they not going out and shooting right now? Get out there and capture it. Don’t wait for a tutor to tell you what to do. Start offering footage and stories to newsdesks and start building those vital contacts.
I have never seen my career as just a job, with a set time to start and finish. On many stories I am hired to work a shift, but if I feel the story is important, interesting or it’s worth capturing additional footage for my own archive, I’ll often stay for a long time after hours. I see our job as photographers and videographers as documenting history. My footage may well be around for hundreds of years to come, as a record as to what actually happened.
Riot police enter a polling station to seize referendum ballot boxes, Barcelona, Spain. © Jason N Parkinson.
2. Film what interests you
Being totally freelance means I get to decide what subjects I cover, and choosing them is simple, it’s what I’m interested in. For a year, I experienced a news outlet sending me to cover all sorts of ridiculous stories — many I had no interest in and couldn’t fathom why other, more important subjects, were being ignored. Frankly, that became totally demoralising, and I soon returned to my old way of working.
Protests can offer lots of subjects to work with and can sometimes lead to action shots. Back in 2005, I was often the only video journalist present at many protests. These days — especially in the big cities like London, Paris and Washington — they’re flooded with video operators; you find yourself tripping over each other as you try to get your shot. I find this an incredibly frustrating way to work, so I try to find events happening away from major cities.
Following the Charlottesville white supremacist protests, I travelled to Grantham to cover a National Front protest. © Jason N Parkinson.
3. Respect your filming environment
If you’re covering any kind of trouble, safety is imperative. In riots, head protection is a minimum. You cannot keep filming with a head injury! Worse situations may require more protection like stab or Kevlar vests. If it wasn’t for my vest while I was filming in Cairo in 2011, I probably wouldn’t be here — police shot me in the back with a pump action shotgun. Gas masks are also essential in any country that uses tear gas — the long-term effects of these chemicals are only just starting to be recognised.
Hostile environment training is also advisable. These courses can seem hugely expensive, but groups like the Rory Peck Trust offer bursaries for freelancers. This will make sure you undergo the correct training before you head into dangerous situations. Also, talk to colleagues around you who are more experienced, everyone is always keen to help. No one wants to see a colleague injured or worse.
Most important of all is having official accreditation, recognised by the police. The National Union of Journalists [NUJ] is the only professional body I know that offers a range of press cards for professionals and those heading towards a full-time career in journalism. There are full membership cards for full-time workers, student accreditation for those in full-time study, and for a limited period, you can apply for a temporary membership card, for those working towards their full-time career. But, with NUJ membership and the press card comes responsibility. Namely, you are signing up to a strict code of conduct; good behaviour and ethical reporting.
Protestors defy tear gas, shotgun rounds and snipers during the Egyptian revolution. © Jason N Parkinson.
4. Look the part
When covering a protest there is always the possibility of trouble, and if there is, you need to be able to identify yourself as a member of the press. Clothing is a big part of this; a police officer can and will make a judgment based on your appearance. It has happened to me several times in the past. I have advised many people to treat their work clothing as a sort of uniform. In short, do not look like a protestor. It will be a lot harder for an officer to argue that they thought you were a protestor when you are wearing smart jeans and a decent shirt — look like you are there to work.
Riot police with non-lethal weapons, during the inauguration of president Trump. More than 200 people were arrested, including nine journalists covering the unrest. © Jason N Parkinson.
5. Look for stories on your doorstep
I meet a lot of people who seem to cover protests in the hope that there will be violence, like that’s the only picture worth getting. With that attitude, they are missing a lot of visual opportunities. They seem to be the same people who tell me they want to be a war photographer, as if all other journalism is inferior and unimportant. You can step outside your own front door and find a story about people struggling or suffering. It is those stories that will get you noticed more in the world of journalism than running off to the next conflict, with little to no training and getting yourself blown up or shot.
A G4S security worker hired for the Olympic Games in Stratford attempts to block filming, London. © Jason N Parkinson.
6. Get to know the people you film
Talking with people on protests often branches away into the real stories behind the protest or sometimes into a completely different story altogether. I have picked up many stories like this, from detainees beaten unconscious by staff at an immigration detention centre to aluminium leaking from an oil and gas refinery.
Many people I know have one subject they always return to once their commissions are over. For instance, a good friend of mine has been covering the Greek refugee crisis long before it garnered international interest in 2015. He’s still there every day after members of various press outlets have left. My partner, photographer Jess Hurd, was covering the story of the Dale Farm Travellers some five years before the site was stormed by hundreds of riot police.
I’ve ended up the unwilling expert on various far right groups that have been active in the UK since 2007. It started, initially, because I was selling a lot of footage to Sky News and the Associated Press of the English Defence League [EDL] protests, and the violence that inevitably erupted. Over the years, it became important for me to know my subject and the people involved, particularly when I have been issued multiple threats by members of the EDL and other far right groups.
Hackney resident Rowena Johnson and her son lie under a construction truck while protesting against the construction of an Olympic venue at Leyton Marsh, London. © Jason N Parkinson.
7. Hold that shot
Composition and style are very important in everything you shoot, with many news outlets having very specific styles. For instance, one might allow panning and the following of the action, while another might want the shot to remain static, with the action moving in and out of the frame. For me, the most important thing when gathering shots for this type of work is the ten-second-rule; hold the shot for 10 seconds and you'll have plenty to work with in post.
When it comes to cutaways, I always try to shoot something original rather than a straight forward flat shot, so even the most mundane scene can look interesting. In my experience, you can never have enough cutaways, so shoot as many as time will allow. With every wide shot you need a medium shot, close-up or detail shot. But having said that, don't be afraid to try something new. If it works then break the rules. Sound is imperative and the rules are simple; get the best quality possible at the scene to avoid stress during the edit.
While shooting, I am constantly thinking about the upcoming edit and make a mental note as I go along. When it comes to the edit, I already have a storyboard in my head of the finished report that can mostly be dropped straight into the timeline. This can helps on-the-spot editing massively and speeds up the delivery time of your news package. All news footage is now shot — as an absolute minimum — in HD 1920x1080. You would be surprised how slow some outlets were to incorporate HD footage. I can even remember having to argue about filming in 16:9 (widescreen standard definition) as late as 2010.
If you are planning to go out and buy a camera right now, opt for 4K. Some people prefer to aim for top-of-the-range professional cameras, but you'll find a wide range of semi-professional cameras that can do the job. To be honest, in this day and age, it doesn't really matter what image format the camera records, but the more data you have at the start of your capture process, the better the quality will be once you have a final rendered package.
The video package you want to send news outlets should be a careful balance of quality and file size. Nobody managing an intake desk wants to see a 2GB file fill up the server. For HD, I set the data rate to 15,000kbps, which gives a file around 120mb for a minute of footage. With news packages comes scriptwriting. As with the video itself, they need to follow smoothly as they tell the story. The script also needs to be packed with as much detailed information as possible. Kind of like the cutaways, you can never have enough detail and information.
Riot police open fire with fully automatic rubber bullet guns on May Day protestors, Istanbul, Turkey. © Jason N Parkinson.
8. Get to know the people you work with
When pitching what you have, make sure you build those contacts. If you send an email describing what material you have, it is often worth following up with a very quick phone call. Get to know the people on the newsdesks and get them to know your material. If you don’t have phone numbers for newsdesks, simply call the news channel reception and ask for the newsdesk, they will put you through (numbers are listed on their websites).
Most of all, be prepared to be ignored a lot and receive a ton of rejections. It's not representative of your work, it's just the way the industry works. Keep banging away and don’t give up. And don’t ever work for free, or give content for free. If it's worth publishing, it's worth paying for. Most importantly, if this is the career you want for life, enjoy your work, have fun and be passionate about the stories you cover. Because if you don't enjoy it, it will reflect in the standard of your work. And it will make you one damned miserable journalist.
About the Author
Jason N. Parkinson has been a freelance video journalist covering politics, protest, refugees, the far right, unrest, disaster and weather across 15 countries for the past for 13 years. In 2011 he was nominated News Finalist in the Rory Peck Awards for coverage of the Egyptian Revolution and again in 2012 for the London Riots.