We've moved! Come join us at Watchdog Arena, where you'll continue to find the same quality articles that expose waste, fraud and abuse as well as examine policy issues at all levels of government.

Please visit our new home and follow us on social media: Facebook & Twitter

We've moved!

Come join us at Watchdog Arena!

Sign Up for Watchdog Updates!

9 Tips for Telling Your Story With Video!

After reading our video tips, you’ll be ready to enter our Summer Recess Video Contest. Click here for more info

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

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.

In Thailand, a citizen uses a smartphone to film a political protest. (1000 Words / Shutterstock.com)

In Thailand, a citizen uses a smartphone to film a political protest. (1000 Words / Shutterstock.com)

For example, the FBI asked citizens in Boston to send them any smartphone videos they had taken of the Boston 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 and are less familiar with using a smartphone, you might want to use a handheld camera. 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.

See tip #8 for more ideas on getting the right equipment.

Tip #2: The Smartphone: a TV Station in Your Pocket

You don't need a studio and expensive equipment to take good video.

You don’t need expensive equipment to take good video.

If you were to tell a journalist in 1999 that you could shoot video, edit video, broadcast the video to the world, and then tell your friends all about it from a device the size of chalkboard eraser they would think you a crazy.

But you can do all of that and more with smartphone.

You can buy video cameras, and the GoPro series is a great camera for day to day use.

But for 90 percent of what you want and need as a citizen journalist, your smartphone is all you need.

Just remember to hold your phone sideways (see tip #3)!

Tip #3: Shoot Like a Pro

Once again, no one’s expecting you to be the next Spielberg, 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.

Whenever taking video with a smartphone, hold it sideways (landscape) so the video is the same orientation as most video screens.









You’ll also want to pick a relatively quiet place to shoot, if possible. 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.

Here are a few additional “protips” from Ben Yount, Watchdog Wire’s video expert:

  • Frame your subject in ⅓ of the shot, and have them look into the other 2/3rds
  • If you are at a long event,  you might want to shoot only what you need (perhaps a Q&A section, for example).
  • You don’t have to waste time and battery shooting a three hour event when you only need 10 minutes, but under some circumstances you might want to keep shooting (see Tip #4)
  • If you are going to shoot the entire rally, start a new video for each speaker.

Tip #4: 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 had 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 have remained in office.

Tip #5: 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 in Watchdog Wire 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 #6: Edit and Share

Not very sophisticated, but gets the job done,

Not very sophisticated, but gets the job done,

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 can edit the length of time of your video very easily through YouTube.

You will 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!

Tip #7: Practice Makes Perfect (or Good Enough)

shutterstock_82192225There is an old saying in newsrooms: Perfect is great, but something is better than nothing.

To put it another way, no one expects you to make a movie.

Make sure the person you are filming is in the frame, make sure viewers can hear them, and make sure the video is not too shaky.

The more video you shoot, the better you will be. So practice, practice, practice.

Tip #8: If You’re Using a Smartphone, Consider Some Add-Ons

If you are willing to spend a little money, you can get very high-quality video and audio from your smartphone.

Your iPhone or Android comes ready to shoot HD video, but with a few additions you can take your video to the next level.

Gorillapod Flexible Tripod

Gorillapod Flexible Tripod

A smartphone stabilizer mount allows you to mount your phone to a tripod for steady video.

A flexible tripod is small enough to carry anywhere, but solid enough to give your video a professional, steady look.

A microphone cord (like this one) allows you to get broadcast quality audio from one on one interviews (Be careful: these are for iPhones and only some Android devices. Check with your retailer before purchasing).

If you are going to be a bear, be a grizzly. If you are going to buy a full set of gear for your phone, buy a good microphone. Cheap mics sound cheap, you can get good quality audio for under $100.

Tip #9: Enter Watchdog Wire’s Summer Recess Video Contest!

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.

This summer, you can put our tips into action by entering our Summer Recess Video Contest.


Watchdog Wire is holding a summer-long video journalism contest for the best original video coverage– local, state or federal– of this Summer Recess. Video submissions will be featured on Watchdog Wire and voted on by the public throughout the summer on a rolling basis. Prizes that compliment participants’ filming and technology flair will be awarded to the videos with the most votes.


Keep your camera rolling, and let the stories come to you!

For more tips on using video check out our webinar “How to Shoot Video at Local Events.” 

Tips written and compiled by Kevin Palmer, Ben Yount, and Josh Kaib. Contact info@watchdogwire.com with any questions. 

Categories: Quick Tips


  1. 6 facts every watchdog should know about libel and slander
  2. 9 Ways to Shed Light on Election Season with Citizen Journalism
  3. Citizen Spotlight: Chris Delamo, Grand Prize Winner of Watchdog Video Contest
  4. You Can Do “Man on the Street” Interviews Like the Pros
  5. It’s August Recess: Ask Your Question and Demand Answers!


comments powered by Disqus