Al Jazeera’s ‘Between Us’ Mines Human Side Of Reporting
When both the Gaza City offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera became casualties of a single May Israeli airstrike, Jo Melo De Frias, an executive producer with the latter organization, reached out to a trusted, experienced correspondent for a gruesomely intimate look at ground-level goings on.
Such thinking has fast become instinctual for her, since launching the Al Jazeera digital-only series Between Us, which spotlights reporter experiences while working on select stories, shortly after the pandemic made its way into the West last year.
“We just wanted to hear more about what happens behind the scenes,” says De Frias, who conceived the series in part to combat beliefs promoted by a certain former U.S. president that journalists produce fake news. She explains that with Between Us she wanted to take viewers to “another level” of news reporting that they ordinarily don’t see, and generate “more of a human story,” while also creating “a really great way to get people to engage with the stories that are told” by journalists.
Three of the first five Between Us episodes profiled field reporters who were focused on the COVID-19 crisis from hotspots like New York and Hong Kong. But the series, which appears on Al Jazeera’s website and social media accounts, soon drifted away from the pandemic, with De Frias figuring there would be viewer fatigue over the topic. Then, on about a monthly basis, Between Us presented journalists who’d crafted pieces on other subjects, such as climate change and systemic oppression of women, from various locations around the world.
However, when the news compels it, De Frias and her Between Us team will quickly cobble together a timelier episode. Just five days after an Israeli rocket toppled the building where Al Jazeera’s Gaza office was housed, De Frias’ team published a report from Jerusalem correspondent Harry Fawcett chronicling not only the violence emanating from the air, but also the chaos at street level, including beatings, protests, even screaming matches between neighbors.
“He’s been a Jerusalem correspondent for four years,” De Frias says of Fawcett. “When we talk about military escalation it’s not just that for him; what he finds quite depressing is the uptick in racial violence” among ordinary citizens.
The episode was produced on the fly, with fewer animations than what would otherwise be the norm for the series, but there’s likely no better example of what Between Us sets out to do than this installment. And when time permits, the series’ production value really shines brightly. There are the aforementioned, tastefully detailed animations, as well as other graphics; stirring soundtracks; striking exclusive footage and interviews; archival materials and more, all with feature-length documentary film-level execution.
De Frias oversees a producer, as well as an editor, creative director, an illustrator/animator, another animator and two more graphic designers on the team. But she says her own EP position is ostensibly title-only, and describes a highly collaborative environment in which the show is produced.
She says one of her favorite steps in the process is an hour-long meeting she has with her creative team. After De Frias and her producer have storyboarded an episode, the creatives dream up ways to make it happen, deciding what sections should be animated, how to cut it up and other considerations.
The animations, which have become increasingly prominent within episodes as the series continues to air, do not simply take the place of unavailable images. De Frias says they also help “demonstrate the emotion of the story, what the journalist is feeling or the experience that is happening.”
She adds that the illustrations take upwards of a week to create, with a second week or so devoted to their animations.
“I always seek with my team to create the most well-defined scenes to preserve the highest level of details when telling such stories,” says Yousef Abdel Nabi, the Between Us creative director. “It’s all about keeping it real, even in our drawings.”
Though all this work is done on software now commonly found in newsrooms — After Effects, Illustrator, and Premiere — with the high-quality animations a must, Between Us typically remains a production that is not turned around with haste. (When they can’t get a journalist into an Al Jazeera studio, they’ll rent one and sometimes buy a white background, communicating with local production teams on how to execute the show’s signature style while filming.)
The production value is paying off, however, in terms of viewership if not revenue, at least for now. De Frias says ROI hasn’t been a concern for Al Jazeera to this point, but with cross-platform episodic views averaging about 200,000 — with a peak of nearly 600,000 — and with retention rates sometimes topping 80% or 90%, the organization is beefing up the show’s resources. (They’re soon adding an additional producer, as one example.)
“I would like to see us do more,” De Frias says. “I would like to get people to know that [Between Us is] going to be there every two weeks just to build on the audience that we already have.”
All evidence seems to suggest that De Frias and her team will get their wish, enabling them to provide even more proof that, certainly out of Al Jazeera, “fake news” is nothing more than a myth.
Editor’s Note: This is the latest of TVNewsCheck’s “Newsroom Innovators” profiles, a series showcasing people and news organizations evolving the shape and substance of video reporting. These profiles examine the inception of their innovations, the tools they employ and how they’re reconciling experimental approaches to news storytelling within daily workflows. You can find the others here.