Get Involved!

Sign up as a Citizen Journalist and get involved in Information Activism.

Sign Up for Watchdog Updates!

TIP SHEET: Tell Your Story With Video!

Quick–what’s the most popular media site in the world? The New York Times’ website?

Nope, it’s YouTube, the world’s third most visited website after Facebook and Google. And although you may be most familiar with YouTube for its funny cat videos, more images are shared via YouTube every day than any other form of media in the world.

Thus, for citizen journalists, there is perhaps no more powerful tool than YouTube, which allows anyone with a video camera and Internet connection to share sights and sounds with the entire world. That’s why it’s important to get familiar with shooting video to improve your stories. No one’s expecting you to be Steven Spielberg, but learning a few tricks of the trade could help take your story viral.

Tip #1: Get the Right Equipment

If you have a smartphone, you already have the basic equipment you need to film events. The iPhone’s built-in video camera isn’t ideal for larger productions, but it’s always in your pocket and at the ready when a story starts to develop. For example, the FBI asked citizens in Boston to send them any smartphone videos they had taken of the bombing, and it was a citizen’s iPhone, not CNN’s cameras, that showed footage Boston Police’s heart-pounding shootout with the terrorists to the world.

Smartphone cameras are great for spur-of-the-moment video shoot–for instance, if you run into a politician and want to ask him a quick question. But if you’re planning a video shoot ahead of time, use a handheld camera, which will give you better quality footage. These can be a bit expensive, but most people own one, so ask a friend if you don’t have one.

You can make your video even more professional by adding a tripod (which will give your video stability) and a handheld microphone, which will improve sound and is great for interviewing subjects.

Tip #2: Shoot Like a Pro

Once again, no one’s expecting you to be Speilberg, but a quick lesson in shooting can lead to much higher quality footage. Two things you’ll always want to be concerned with are light and sound: Will your video be bright enough, and will your subject be audible?

When possible, always shoot in a well-lit area. If you find someone who agrees to do a video interview, move them to the brightest place possible before turning your camera on. Also, make sure to always keep the source of light behind the camera, so that it’s shining on your subject. If the light is in the background, you’ll have trouble with shadows.

You’ll also want to pick a relatively quiet place to shoot. Sometimes (at crowded events, for example) background noise is unavoidable–this is where your microphone comes in. If you’re interviewing, make sure the subject is holding the microphone close to their mouth.

While shooting, make sure the camera stays steady so that your video isn’t wobbly. If you have a tripod, you won’t have to worry about this, but if you don’t, hold the camera close to you for extra control and use the palm of your hand to steady the bottom of the camera.

Tip #3: Never Stop Shooting

What do Bob Etheridge and Phil Hare have in common? Both were members of Congress who voted for Obamacare. Both were considered “safe” for re-election in 2010 by most pundits. And both lost to previously unknown citizen candidates: a registered nurse and a pizzeria owner, respectively.

Why did Etheridge and Hare lose? Because they made big mistakes (assaulting a college student and professing not to care about the Constitution), and a citizen happened to have a camera rolling when they snapped. Take a look:

YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image

If you’re filming a politician, you never know when a juicy quote is coming, so don’t turn off your camera after they’ve answered your question. Keep the camera on them until they’re out of your sight. Part of holding politicians accountable is about seeing all sides of them, and sharing their flaws with fellow citizens. If not for the power of video, Etheridge and Hare may well both be still in office.

Tip #4: Obey the Law, but Not Necessarily the “Rules”

There’s a key distinction here: you always need to follow the law when it comes to filming, but you can push back against “no video please” requests from nervous politicians. There are some areas where the law prohibits video recording, and there’s nothing you can do about this (although if it seems unjust, you can always write about the law!) But in other cases, filming is perfectly legal, even if people in power don’t want your camera in the room. Most city council and school board meetings are considered part of the public record, and you have the right to film them.

One of the most famous examples of “no video please” involved Baron Hill, a Congressman from Indiana who refused to allow high school students to film his town hall meetings for their civics class–because he didn’t want it ending up on YouTube. Hill then went off on a rant about how no one could tell him how to run his office, and sure enough, it ended up on YouTube:

YouTube Preview Image

This was a perfect case of filming being legal, even though Hill was trying to discourage it. The YouTube video went viral and contributed to Hill’s defeat later that year.

Tip #5: Edit and Share

Video editing can sound daunting, but Microsoft and Apple both include simple, user-friendly editing programs on most new computers. Once you’ve transferred video from your camera to your computer, follow the editing program’s steps to get your video ready to share. This is the time where you’ll cut out parts of your video that aren’t as interesting or relevant: shorter videos are easier to watch on YouTube, so trim your footage down to its main points.

You’ll need a YouTube account to upload your video, but that’s the only hurdle you’ll have to jump through. Give your video a catchy, newsy title: “School Board Clashes Over Taxpayer Funding” is better than “May 2013 School Board Meeting.” Once it’s uploaded, make sure to use other social platforms like Facebook and Twitter to share it with other citizens!

Your Turn

Video is the ultimate equalizer in journalism: your smartphone or handheld camera may not be as sophisticated as professional news cameras, but it shoots the same way, and if you’re in the right place at the right time, you can catch footage that no one in the media can. Keep your camera rolling, and let the stories come to you!


Kevin Palmer

Staff writer at Franklin Center. Contact me at

More Posts

Categories: Must Read, Quick Tips


  1. Occupy, Union Activists Organizing Homeless Tent Cities in Honolulu?
  2. REPORT: Tax-free zones won’t take New York out of the poorhouse
  3. Hawaii to be First State to Dump Obamacare Health Exchange?
  4. Watchdog Wire Weekly Wrap
  5. Kansas values, applied to schools


comments powered by Disqus

Community Buzz