23 April 2009

Music to Your Users' Ears?

Music is a powerful and pervasive part of our culture, and it offers an opportunity to add an extra kick to a visual story.

No, wait. Music can be emotionally manipulative, and it hurts credibility to attach it to journalists' stories.

The Poynter Institute's Regina McCombs recently offered some guidelines for online journalists who agree (or disagree) with both arguments:

* In general, you should not add music to what was gathered from the scene.

The authentic audio, video or photography gathered in the field is the most important storytelling material a journalist has. Adding material that was not gathered through the reporting process must be done with great caution and skill. Natural sound can be just as powerful.

The BBC is among the organisations that have decided against using music in news stories. "You are changing what you're representing, and if you're changing it, it shouldn't be there," said Fiona Anderson of BBC Newsgathering. "I think this whole issue of enhancement is really dodgy."

* In the rare cases in which you add music, it should be used to enhance or further the narrative, not to compensate for incomplete reporting.

Brian Storm of media production company MediaStorm says music works best when the photojournalism carries the storyline and contains the narrative -- not because narrative is missing. Music "doesn't make a piece work," he said. "All the elements have to be working. It's like another gear you have."

"Music can get in the way, it can control the pacing, it can put it on rails. It becomes like an amusement park ride, presented so you become passive," argues documentary editor Jonathan Menell. "It tells the viewer you're going to handle them and control the emotion."

* All stories are not equal.

Just as writers don't approach feature stories the same way as investigative pieces, the standards for adding music may vary within story genres.

In general, the American Press Institute says, the more serious or sensitive the story, the more careful you should be in using background music.

* Music is not a universal language.

A breathtaking aria to one person is grating noise to another. Because people's reactions to music are subjectively influenced by their personal tastes, music and mood, you can never be certain how you affect a story by adding a piece of music.

* You must understand the craft of scoring music if you add it to stories.

Most of us are not skilled in the use of music with video. As with photography and writing, incorporating music well requires a lot of craft, both in selecting the music and editing it.

McCombs offers several examples of how music can affect reaction to a story. The bottom line, she says, is that music should not lessen our stories nor be used to manipulate viewers' emotions. If you're considering adding music to any piece, you need to be cautious and thoughtful. And you must respect the integrity of the story.

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