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The Reel Truth
Exploring the intersection of journalism and documentary filmmaking.

Michael Werner

May 24th, 2023
Navigating the Realities of Video Journalism with Emily Rhyne

Welcome to the Video Consortium’s newest column, The Reel Truth. We're excited to bring you conversations with some of the most talented and innovative video journalists and documentarians out there. In each monthly column, we'll be exploring the intersection of journalism and documentary filmmaking from a global perspective, and pinpointing what it takes to tell important stories with video. From covering breaking news to crafting long-form documentaries, we'll dive into the art and craft of visual storytelling and gain practical insights from award-winning colleagues and practitioners on how they navigate the often murky boundaries between journalism and documentary. So, come along with us as we explore this vital and ever-evolving field!

For our first edition, we sat down with Emily Rhyne, an Emmy award-winning video journalist for the New York Times. Her work has taken her around the world, reporting on everything from refugee crises and climate change to gold-medal-winning Olympic athletes.


Michael Werner: Emily, thanks for talking with us today. Would you start by telling me about your role at the New York Times — are you primarily a cinematographer?

Emily Rhyne: My role really changes depending on the project and the needs of a story. Sometimes I'm a cinematographer, sometimes a producer, sometimes an editor. Sometimes I’m all three of those roles. Sometimes I'm just one!. It changes a lot.

MW: You work for a journalism organization but you create short-form documentaries. Do you think of yourself as a journalist or a documentarian?


ER: I definitely think of myself as a journalist. And you know, until recently — when I was on a panel with the IDA and VC [for the Documentary Journalism Summit] — I hadn't really thought about the differences between a documentarian and a journalist. The only thing I'd really considered to be different was the length of the film that you're putting out into the world.

Emily Rhyne behind the scene photo on an upcoming project.

I feel really lucky because I've always worked at journalistic institutions. I've never been freelance. And so the way I do my work is within the guardrails set out by the institution I'm working for. So it's always been really clear to me where those big bright red lines are. During the panel I was on — which explored these blurred lines — it became clear that for people working outside of institutions in the documentary film industry, those journalistic ethics really aren't as clearly outlined, and a lot is up for debate.

MW: Let’s talk about those guardrails. How do you balance the need to tell engaging and compelling stories with the responsibility to accurately portray reality to your audience?

ER: For me, my worst case scenario is for someone to watch something that I’ve made and think that it’s totally documentary, and by that I mean that it's not set up at all. And then they find out that the scene was manipulated or it was set up. That feels like a breach of trust with the audience. It's a slippery slope and so I personally avoid setting anything up.

Plenty of my friends are like, “that can’t really happen.” when they’re watching documentaries. They have an assumption that it’s been facilitated or manipulated to a degree. So you stand to potentially lose the audience’s trust if you start manipulating reality and your audience doesn’t know that.

MW: What kind of pre-production work and planning goes into your shoots?

ER: It really varies. I remember the first Olympics shoot I went on: we filmed with Simone Manuel, an Olympic swimmer. We had just a day with her and they gave us five dives. I had dives one through five all planned out: I knew where every camera was going to be, what their frame rates were, what the composition would be. We mapped it out intricately so we didn’t waste any time with, you know, an Olympic gold medal athlete.

With fly-on-the-wall type shoots, it's a lot harder because the best case scenario is that you've got a relationship with the person you're filming and you impart on them enough knowledge of what you're trying to do that they think, Oh, this thing is happening in my life. I should call Emily. That level of understanding of what we do usually takes a lot of time, and frankly more time to develop than what I usually do in the field.

With our project in Uvalde, TX, my colleague Callaghan O'Hare and I spent time with the Martinez family, and focused on nine-year-old J.T., who lost three cousins in the shooting in Uvalde. We wanted to spend time with him as the funerals were taking place. His mom Michelle had a good idea of what we were trying to do because we spent time talking with her and showing her other work that we’d done. And she did a really amazing job of sharing her schedule with us.

For documentary work, I think you can try to produce as much as you can, but the nature of our assignments often just requires you to be there, and things will happen once you're present. Some of the greatest scenes that we got with the Martinez family were moments that we thought, Let's just drive by and check out how big the barbecue is that they said that they were going to have. We just knew that if you're there, something will probably happen.

And of course, if you’re late to this moment, you can't recreate them. You can't say, “Hey, we're running 10 minutes behind. Please wait to leave for the funeral for 10 minutes.” There's no world in which that's appropriate or possible. And so it just means you have to be on your A game and you have to be thinking ahead. There really are no shortcuts.

MW: How much time do you usually spend working on one project?

ER: Yeah, I don't even know if there's an average, but I would say being in the field for two weeks is a very long reporting trip. Certainly I've gone on reporting trips that are maybe like three weeks, but I'm working on many stories within those three weeks.

I think the Rockaway Hospital Piece is a good example. Most people are shocked that we spent only two days inside the hospital. And we did the interviews on a separate day. We did another day for b-roll. So that's four days of shooting time for the piece.

MW: How much time do you usually spend working on one project?

ER: Yeah, I don't even know if there's an average, but I would say being in the field for two weeks is a very long reporting trip. Certainly I've gone on reporting trips that are maybe like three weeks, but I'm working on many stories within those three weeks.

I think the Rockaway Hospital Piece is a good example. Most people are shocked that we spent only two days inside the hospital. And we did the interviews on a separate day. We did another day for b-roll. So that's four days of shooting time for the piece.

Because I work in news, sometimes stories can be as quick as, you know, two hours of shooting and it needs to go up now and that's because it's usually a live, breaking news moment. But then something like the Bob Ross piece was not pressing news at all, and there were tons of creative decisions to weigh. I think that was probably three months in edit. So it had a pretty long post time.

The first step in these really heavy situations like a refugee crisis or a school shooting is just showing up as a human first. I mean, I usually have my camera in hand, but that doesn’t mean I'm always recording. And it’s taking the time to explain to somebody why you're there, who you're there for, and what you’re trying to do. It really is as simple as showing goodwill to somebody and not letting yourself get wrapped up in the news moment.
—Emily Rhyne

MW: One of the challenges of being on the ground for a relatively short time is that you have to develop rapport with sources quickly. How do you accomplish that?

ER: It's tough. The first step in these really heavy situations like a refugee crisis or a school shooting is just showing up as a human first. I mean, I usually have my camera in hand, but that doesn’t mean I'm always recording. And it’s taking the time to explain to somebody why you're there, who you're there for, and what you’re trying to do. It really is as simple as showing goodwill to somebody and not letting yourself get wrapped up in the news moment.

When we were covering the shootings in Uvalde in particular, I don't think I had ever been part of a media scrum quite like that, ever. But just taking the extra time to explain yourself and be human paid off in major ways on that project — just showing somebody that your intent is good goes a long way because people can always sense that kind of thing.

But to your point of how to build rapport, I think it's really about being open and honest and transparent and not making any promises that you can't keep.

MW: You work mostly on shorter-form pieces. Do you ever struggle with wanting to create long-form documentaries while knowing that the realities of the job make that very challenging?

ER: You know the longer I do this the more I walk away from assignments saying, “That would be a great feature documentary.” But that's not what we're doing and, you know, sometimes that's painful. It can be very painful to walk away and say, “Wow, if I lived here for a year, if I spent a year with this family, this could be an incredible documentary.”

Emily Rhyne BTS at the Winter Olympics
Behind the scenes for a story in Brazil

And it's been a process for me in this job of being more comfortable taking a smaller slice of the pie of somebody's story and figuring out what you can potentially do responsibly and ethically within whatever time-frame or resource restrictions you might have.

But this is a practice that I'm continually trying to hone. It's quite hard, as we all know!

This is my dream job. But it can also be a lot. It's allowed to be both things. And so in the fall I realized for the first time that if I'm going to continue to do this work, I've got to take care of myself too.
—Emily Rhyne

MW: You traveled extensively in 2022, including some big international trips to China, Poland, and Iraq. I know for a lot of us, travel is part of the job that we love because it brings excitement and variety. But it's also just taxing to be on the road so much. And it sounds like you got to a point where it was too much. What do you do when you reach that point, especially when travel is such a big part of your job?

ER: I think that maybe there would have been years where that amount of travel wouldn't have phased me. And I think it was less about the travel and more about the heaviness of the work and that I didn't have enough time to really sit with it and process it appropriately.

I had an honest conversation at that time with my manager and said, “I think I need to be in New York for a bit.” I was lucky that there wasn't a huge breaking news story that would require me to go anywhere. But I think that’s the beauty of a staff job, the beauty of having relationships that you’ve built over years so you can be honest.

And that, luckily, hasn’t really ever been met with resistance. It's recognized as necessary. And during that time, of course, I'm still working. I’m editing. I’m producing.

This is my dream job. But it can also be a lot. It's allowed to be both things. And so in the fall I realized for the first time that if I'm going to continue to do this work, I've got to take care of myself too. I needed to be comfortable sitting at home on my couch and not being out in the world witnessing immense human suffering.

MW: And yet, sometimes we ignore our instincts and try to push through, right?

ER: You know, I remember I was catching up with an old friend last year, I think it was after Uvalde, and she made an off-the-cuff comment like, “I hope you have a really great therapist.” And I had heard that same sentiment from other people close to me. Finally it was just that one comment that I thought, I should probably sit down long enough to let this hit me and see what the effects are.

And I think there’s a component of guilt here, of “How am I the one feeling bad after this assignment when I'm only witnessing the trauma of others?”

For so many of us, that’s not an atypical way of rationalizing your own trauma. It's like creating a hierarchy and you're at the bottom of it. But you’d have to not be human for this not to affect you. And I've come to terms and started to embrace the depths to which I feel the impact of these assignments.

There's nothing to be gained from being super tough. You're a vessel for other people's stories and that means you're also becoming a vessel in some way for their trauma. And of course that's gonna be lasting and stay with you.

MW: I imagine that one way to protect your emotional well being would be to vary the types of assignments you take on so you’re not constantly working on these heavy stories. Is that something you consciously do?

ER: Yeah, that’s true. But I don't want to give myself too much credit because it's just the nature of working at an organization like the Times that covers a range of topics. There’s just such a variety of projects in the newsroom. And it's probably to the credit of my editors who work with me and realize that, Okay, Emily just came back from this really heavy story. Let's try to get her onto something that’s more based with the culture desk or with the sports desk.

I know plenty of people who I work with who really know what they want to do and what their interests are. Their beat is the war in Ukraine, or they're interested in immigration or they're interested in politics. But I really struggle to say what I'm “interested in.” And that just makes me game for whatever pops up.

Some of the stories that are a little bit lighter are also opportunities to test and hone and get creative with the craft. There’s so much gained from working on stories like Bob Ross and the Olympics because it's just a more creative space to flex and grow and try new things. And it’s also a way to keep working and not just pump the brakes and stop working when things get hard or dark.

A 2021 Summer Olympics four mocap gif

MW: I love the Bob Ross story. It’s so fun. Tell me, how did editing the Bob Ross video differ from editing a piece about war or COVID?

ER: The Bob Ross piece, in the crudest of terms, is not life or death. It's an exploration of an artist and these amazing quirky people who have dedicated their lives to protecting his archive of works and how hilarious and amazing they are. So it felt like the liberties we could take there with the editing or the jump cuts or the music could be bigger. That piece was so fun to make. It was so fun to shoot. It was so fun to edit. I mean we were constantly crying, laughing in the edit room and playing things back, trying different versions. And that felt appropriate because it’s such a happy, good story.

Bob Ross cover
Picture of a plaque saying the Bob Ross story surpased 1,000,000 subscribers

When we published Bob Ross, of course, there was a part of me that was like I hope this does really well because I love it. But we didn't know if it was going to land and if people would like it. It felt so off-beat and quirky that it was a risk. I had no idea if people were going to watch it. Certainly the numbers on it now (15 million views as of April 2023) show us that we were right. But it very much felt like a risk at the time.

With war or with trauma, whether that be COVID or a mass shooting or a refugee crisis, the word fun is not even close to the vocabulary that we use to describe those situations. More like “reverence,” “grief,” “painful,” “sad.” These are moments where quirky editing and artistic flair are, of course, not appropriate. They're also just not worth the risk. So I feel like I'm quite a bit more conservative with these pieces.

MW: How much back and forth is there with your supervisors about the edits? And what are some of the typical concerns you hear?

ER: There are so many layers of approval here. There's always at least one layer of approval above me: my senior producer. And depending on the story that approval and those reviews can escalate higher up the chain. In my experience, the higher I've gone up the chain, the more those notes are around journalistic integrity and due diligence because the stories that do go high up are the most sensitive or the most investigative. And so you want our most experienced eyes on those stories to make sure that they're fair and that we aren't missing anything.

And then, on top of that, there are obviously more artistic questions or editing questions or music choices. And that back and forth can look like, “Hey, I don't know about that music choice. That feels heavy-handed.” or “I think we should cut down the sound bites of this person.” or “How can we cut in a statement from ICE?”

Nothing is off the table in terms of review.

You can't make good work alone, and community is central to doing this job well and doing it responsibly
—Emily Rhyne

MW: Emily, you’ve shared a lot of great insights that’ll resonate with readers. Before we go, I’ve got one last question that we like to ask all our interviewees. What's the best piece of advice that you've received in your career as a journalist and filmmaker?

ER: I don't think, for me, there’s a single piece of advice that stands out. However, a big part of what was instilled in me at the University of North Carolina, which is where I went to school, is that you can't make it through a career doing this alone. You can't make good work alone, and community is central to doing this job well and doing it responsibly. And I think that spirit has carried me through a lot of this work. That isn’t really a piece of advice, but it's a value that was instilled in me in journalism school.

MW: That rings so true. We’re incredibly lucky to be part of a community that’s so supportive and encouraging. Couldn’t do this work without it.

Thanks so much for your time Emily. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this.

ER: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

Have an idea for a Reel Truth guest? Send the Michael a note directly!

Field Notes is edited by Melinda Thompson.


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