Interview with Connor Snell

I sat down with junior journalism major Connor Snell to discuss multimedia journalism. This was our first video assignment of the semester.


Beautiful Baby Grand

In 2012, the New York Times reported about beautiful old pianos being thrown into the dump. This idea struck a chord in my heart. While I have the ability to play the piano at about the level of a 3-year-old child wearing mittens, there is something about an emotional piano melody that makes my heart flutter every time. However, what ensued in the piece was so odd and unfitting that I quickly lost the emotion I had prior to reading the article.

The written article was not bad, however it many times trailed off into side information or explanations before truly hitting an emotional tone. An emotional addition could have been a detailed description of how beautiful one of the pianos was, followed by it falling to its death. The most derailing paragraph, however, was definitely the final one. While the entire article stresses how sad these piano movers are to see the pianos go, the last sentence reveals that many times they actually enjoy pushing the pianos out of the truck. While I am doubtful that this piece of information could fit anywhere in the piece, it certainly does not fit as the final remark.

The most grossly unfitting aspect of this story, however, was the video accompanying the written piece. The video took any emotion I still had after reading the end of the article, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash. Apparently, the person behind the video, Jamie Williams, has never quite heard of the word musicality. There are countless heartbreaking piano ballads available, and I cannot think of a better time to use one than in a piece about pianos dying. Williams, however, seems to lack all musical common sense, and fill the story with lighthearted background music. The second song used completely ruined the piece for me the minute it began.

The natural sound of the piece I also thought was distracting. While in any other piece I would say that the natural sound should drain out any background music, this is not any other piece. The direct focus should be the pianos, and the sound of crushing wood got very old, very quickly. Had the piece had the light sound of the crushing wood over a heavy, soul-bearing piano piece, it would have really keyed into the viewers’ emotions.

On top of the gross misuse of music, the video did not bother to show anything other than crushing pianos to evoke emotion. It did not show any visuals, or even discuss, the golden age of the piano, nor did it even show a beautiful piano. Many watching this video might not understand just how beautiful a mint grand piano can look. All they see is a bunch of wood getting crushed by machinery.

They also don’t speak to anyone but the piano mover. It would have been nice to talk to someone who loves pianos, or collects them, or even better, a sad family that needed to get rid of their piano. It would have put more depth into the piece, and allowed them to take out some of their landfill footage that dragged on for most of the video.

While the written article was somewhat effective, the video accompanying it ruined the entire piece in my eyes. I ended up more disgusted at the end of the piece than I was emotional from understanding the fate of these pianos. In most cases a video would have improved a piece like this, allowing people to hear the music, see the piano, and digest the story. However, this video did very little of that, and only left me frustrated, making the package ineffective.

The Ethical Dilemma in “The American Made Benny”

Click here to watch “The American Made Benny” which was published to in December 2012.

With a name like Benny, you knew his story had to be interesting, and interesting doesn’t even begin to describe the story of “garbologist” Benny Villanova.

Benny brought the viewer along on the drunken, high, humor-filled, tragic ride that he lives every day. He was raw, nonsensical, emotional, strong, and weak all at the same time. He was, with each sentence, a journalist’s greatest dream and worst nightmare.

Benny’s life is perplexing, to say the least, to the average American. His raw emotion and bizarre quirks are what journalists love. They bring the viewer closer to the subject- make you fall in love. In theory, the interview with Benny should have been perfect. His unfiltered commentary, mixed with his narrative of extreme hardship and his ability to cope make for the perfect hero.

However, after watching the piece the viewer is left with a feeling that Benny might not be the hero after all, a sentiment echoed by the creators after the release of the video.

Benny brings up more than a few stories that make you wonder how much of the truth he is telling. Stories ranging from his “unreasonable” firing from the Sanitation Department all the way to “misunderstandings” of abuse in the home cloud Benny’s credibility, and beg for a second source to clear up the truth. Due to the nature of the project, along with refusal of the family to cooperate, the production team was unable to piece other stories together to find the truth, and was ultimately left only with what Benny had told them.

This begged the question, is it ever okay to publish a piece that might not tell the truth?

This is a question that has plagued the journalism industry since the beginning, and the answer varies heavily depending on the circumstance. In the case of Benny Villanova, I believe it is crucial to continue to run the piece.

I believe journalism has two main roles: to tell the story of events and to tell the story of people. To me these are two completely different ideas. You cannot tell either the same way. In order to understand what category a story falls under, one must understand the difference.

A piece that tells the story of an event is purely factual at the root. While it may include, and if it is a good piece of journalism will include, a degree of pathos, the main focus must be correctly telling the story. These types of stories might center on a person involved in the event, and seem like a “person story”, however the event is still the route. In “event stories” one source journalism will never be enough. The story must be fairly balanced, and the whole story represented. There is no exception- the story must be right.

The other faction of journalism has much more wiggle-room. A “person-story” revolves solely around making the viewer understand the subject. While this type of story must rely on a degree of factuality, as it is journalism, sometimes it needs to accept the possibility of falsehood to accurately represent a person. Sometimes what makes someone who they are is not fact, but what they believe to be true. The journalist’s job is to, for the length of the piece, make the viewer feel what the subject feels.

The makers of “The American Made Benny” did just this.

For 25 minutes I felt like I understood Benny, which I believe was the goal of the piece.

The makers of the film did not purposely publish any false information, nor did they lead the viewer to believe that it was true. Even a simple viewing of the film reveals major questions on the credibility of Benny. Benny himself provides the viewer with doubt over his stories. They did not paint Benny in a heroic picture at all. They did not do anything to alter Benny. They showed Benny.

How Benny sees the world around him might not be what is actually happening, but that is one of the idiosyncrasies that make Benny, Benny. He is totally and completely on a planet of his own. This altered state of reality, the very altered state that makes people question whether or not the piece should be run, is exactly what the story it is trying to tell.

“The American Made Benny” is not a story about a garbologist. If that was the case it would be called “Garbology: a look at the people who created it”. What it is the story of is the urban individual, down on his luck that relies on booze, drugs, and menial tasks to feel useful and get through the day. It is the story of the American veteran who came back only to have the very people he fought for discard him. It is the story about the person who, despite beating cancer, still lives a tough life. It is the story of the people too mentally “out there” for society to care about them.

Is Benny who he says he is? Maybe not. Are some of Benny’s stories skewed to the point of possible falsehood? Absolutely. Does Benny represent a lot of forgotten people in the US, people whose stories deserve to be told? Absolutely.

That is why Benny’s story needed to be published.

Were non-traditional commercials the true winners of the Super Bowl?

111.5 million viewers tuned into the Super Bowl last Sunday night, making it the most-viewed broadcast in history. Many viewers, however, do not tune in for the football. For the only time each year, many viewers watch a program for its commercials. So this is a no-brainer for ad-executives, right? For one night each year people solve the main problem that advertisers have- they actually want to watch commercials.

It isn’t that black and white though.

A 30-second spot during the big game reportedly went for $4 million dollars, a record high, and many commercials exceed that 30 seconds, costing even more money. Many times these commercials are worth the pricy investment, because, of course, the brand of beer you should drink totally depends on the number of cute puppies in the commercial. However, the big advertising stories of this year, which proved to be a disappointing year for entertaining commercials, were the non-traditional advertisers.

First consider Pepsi. Pepsi for years was known for their over-the-top, star-studded commercials during the Super Bowl. This year, however, they opted for a bit more, and instead of a commercial during the Super Bowl, they turned the Super Bowl into their commercial. It was the “Pepsi Halftime Show”, and they made sure everyone knew it. Pepsi, in America’s mind, is now associated with the game of football- a product’s dream.

That strategy is impossible for any company that isn’t rolling around in extra hundreds of millions of dollars.** Instead, the big winners were the companies who decided to use unorthodox, cheaper ways of advertising during the big game.

Consider Esurance, known for its yearly talking-baby ads, who switched it up by buying the first commercial after the Super Bowl, saving them $1.5 million. They announced during the ad that they are giving away the money they saved to someone who tweets using the hashtag #esurancesave30. Within the first minute they had 200,000 entries. As of 11:00 AM on Monday, the ad had received 1 billion impressions and 2 million entries. Esurance had less than 10,000 followers before the ad ran. They are now up to 261,000, an unheard of increase.

Also consider JC Penney, a company who did not even purchase ad space during the big game. Instead they relied on the people of Twitter to spread their message, tweeting two seemingly intoxicated tweets.

This led to a frenzy of mentions on Twitter (myself included). Minutes later they posted an explanation:

It was all a ploy to advertise their Team USA mittens they are selling. JC Penney got a major amount of traffic to see their product for absolutely no money. Sneaky, huh?

Finally, winners wouldn’t be winners without the losers. Coca-cola became a major talking piece on Twitter after their “America is Beautiful” commercial featured the song “America the Beautiful” sung in other languages.

Twitter immediately blew up with the hashtags #boycottcoke, and promises to switch to Pepsi from now on because “in America we speak English”. While extremists claiming the Coca-cola company is working with terrorists are not exactly the majority, the message “boycott coke” is an outcome that is never desired.

With these wins and losses it will be interesting to see if more companies attempt non-traditional advertising next year.


For a look at more of this year’s Super Bowl commercials click here.