Matt Frei and the ‘light touch’ (five tips for journalists)

By Thomas Lowe

In conversation with Vin RayMatt Frei let us into the deepest, darkest and funniest recesses of his journalistic mind. Here is his advice for putting together a good story for television.

1. Pictures

Writing well for TV is quite simple, Frei says. The lesson is just to “get out of the way” of the images or the sound:

“It’s kind of a nerdy thing to say but if you’re doing television writing you’ve got to look at the pictures – they won’t tell you what points to make but they’ll confine what you can say.”

Frei says that former BBC correspondent Martin Bell is the ‘go to’ man on writing:

“Martin would look at [the shots] and pace up and down… then out would come twelve seconds of words followed by the sound of a dog barking or a shell going off.”

2. Immediacy

For Frei, the carefully managed journalism event comes as a distant second to the immediate.

A piece to camera by ITVs John Irvine standing on a road in Baghdad as US army trucks scrape by him at high speed is a good example.

“It’s not a kind of standard piece to camera where I’m standing here for thirty seconds telling you what I think this is all about… [John Irvine] writes simply – it’s the light touch.”

And in carefully orchestrated Washington, where Frei works at the moment as correspondent with Channel 4 News:  

“These unscripted moments, they’re gold dust.”

3. Humour

In the same way that Frei’s chuckling asides gave this discussion momentum, he says that laughter can be great for telling stories:

“There’s a lot of funny stuff out there and if you don’t use it you’re missing a trick.”

4. Detail

Noticing small, hidden things can bring a difficult story to life.

In South Korea, where the economic crisis had a huge impact on the personal lives of people made redundant, was a bridge that people jumped off to commit suicide. But how do you tell the story with no obvious pictures?

The authorities had put grease up the bridge to stop people climbing up, but slip marks showed that not everyone had been put off trying to reach the top:

You’re not going to get someone jumping off a bridge and going to funerals isn’t going to do it either, so you have to find something that works… in that little scratch signature in the grease you can see the agony, you can imagine what was going through his mind… it’s a little glimpse in that detail into the desperation that makes people do something like this.”

5. Interviews

In America, Frei says that getting people to talk isn’t hard, but he concedes that interviewing well is a tricky business, albeit one with a simple solution:

“My policy is to start off with a big fat smile and just try and disarm the situation by being unthreatening – then go for it afterwards”

Watch the full event here: