Thinking Visually: Professor Craig Duff Prepares His Students to be Successful Journalists in a Multimedia World

As the 2012 presidential campaign reached its final frenzied stretch, The New York Times sent a team of reporters that included Professor Craig Duff to Cincinnati. There he filmed groups of enthusiastic volunteers knocking on doors and working phone banks, attempting to reach every potential voter they could.

Duff spent just two days in the election battleground of Ohio before heading back to Chicago, where he dispatched 16 urban affairs reporting graduate students throughout the city to do similar work. The students captured the sights and sounds of election night and the morning after through social media, videography, photography and writing.

In today’s world of cross-platform reporting, journalists are long past the days when reporters were “just writers” or “just photographers.” Although anyone can be considered a video reporter today with the touch of a smartphone button, Duff, an award-winning multimedia journalist, instructs his students as they complete their work to remember the “J” in “VJ,” meaning focus on the journalism as a video journalist .

“We want to make sure students are prepared for what they’ll confront in the real world,” says Duff, who began teaching broadcast reporting and documentary courses at Medill last spring. “I want to help reporters become better visual thinkers and visual journalists become better reporters.”

John V. Santore (MSJ13), a student in the urban affairs class, visited The New York Times’ website the weekend before the election and watched his professor’s video, which for a period on Sunday, Nov. 4, appeared at the top of the page.

“Knowing I would be seeing him in class the next week was really exciting,” says Santore, who recalled Duff’s tips when he spent election night at McCormick Place covering President Barack Obama’s eventual victory. “Telling a visual story is less intuitive than you might think. He teaches us how to ask questions, how to display photos to advance a story and develop a narrative through video.” 

In the relatively short history of online multimedia journalism, Duff is among the field’s pioneers. He previously worked as director of multimedia and chief video journalist for TIME and with The New York Times as lead video journalist. His team at TIME won an Emmy in the New Approaches to News & Documentary Programming category for a series that delivered a behind-the-scenes look at iconic photographs taken on D-Day and during the fall of the Berlin Wall, among other historical events.

Duff started his career as a video journalist at CNN, completed teaching stints at Columbia University and Princeton University, and spent a year as a Knight International Journalism Fellow at the American University in Cairo.

Duff faced a new challenge last summer when he taught a graduate documentary course where students had less than 10 weeks to produce a 10-minute documentary. By the end of the quarter, the students completed six successful documentaries.

“He always has this way of making a student believe it can be done,” says Thomas Owen (MSJ12), now a production assistant at the Chicago Tribune. When Owen faced challenges getting access to a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for a documentary on service dogs aiding veterans, he said Duff drew from his extensive professional background to offer assistance and suggestions to keep the story alive.

“I never felt like he would allow me or anyone else to fail,” Owen says.