Music in Multimedia: Add Sparingly, Not as a Crutch

More and more, photojournalists who would never add anything to an image are adding prerecorded music to news stories. Click on a video or audio slideshow on a news site, and under the narration or natural sound, you'll often hear music. Documentaries and television journalists do it all time.

But should we? More and more in Poynter seminars, questions arise about how to properly use music in slideshows and video stories. It's clear that the industry is looking for answers; yet there are no easy ones.

Music has power, and within a multimedia story, it has the power to hide a lot of flaws: to make a story move faster, to set an emotional tone for a piece. "The problem is not that music doesn't work, it's that it works too well," said Al Tompkins, Poynter's broadcast and online group leader.

Many worry that adding music to videos and slideshows hurts journalists' credibility. "I believe that the growing use of music in documentary multimedia storytelling has the potential to cast doubt on the impartial nature of our reportage," said Rich Beckman, Knight Chair for Visual Journalism at the University of Miami.

So it's black and white, right? No music in news stories.

Not so fast, others argue. Music is a pervasive part of our culture. It's used in documentaries, movies and television shows, and journalism producers should be able to employ all the same tools in their multimedia. Shawn Montano, twice named National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) video editor of the year, wrote in his Edit Foundry blog that he loves adding music to video stories. "Using music is an opportunity to add a little something extra to a story. I think it's a true art."

While Tom Kennedy, who until recently was the managing editor for multimedia editor at, prefers storytelling with natural sound only, he said the Post has moved toward adding music on occasions. "Sometimes a bit of well-used music can set up a sublime counterpoint to the movement of the images themselves and be the real point of focus for a piece that owes more to art than journalism."

As an experiment, I edited a story three different ways: using natural sound only, adding a music track in a minor key and adding an upbeat music track. Everything else about the stories is identical. Watch for yourself, and see if the music makes a difference in how you react.

If it's not black and white, then we need some guidelines to navigate through the gray areas. After talking with Kelly McBride, ethics group leader here at Poynter, and a number of people who have wrestled with the issues, I put together a framework to use as you consider how you and your news organization handle music in your multimedia.

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

The authentic audio, video or photography gathered in the field is the most important material you have as a storyteller and a journalist. Adding material that was not gathered through the reporting process must be done with great caution and skill.

"In the journalism sector, most times you don't need music," said Brian Storm, president of the media production company MediaStorm. I was surprised to hear him take that position because he has added music to many of his stories, but he said it's about getting the story right first. "I would start with making my narrative as tight as possible. If it's not adding, then it's taking away."

The power of the well-told story, Beckman said, is in its authenticity. "Folks need to understand how to use ambient audio to add mood and emotion to their stories, not rely on the crutch of canned music."

Natural sound can be just at powerful as music, argued Lane Michaelsen, news director at WUSA-TV in Washington, D.C., and the leader of much of Gannett's newspaper video training. He said the company frowns on music use for legal and ethical reasons.

Likewise, the BBC has decided against using music in news stories, said Fiona Anderson, assistant editor of training and development at BBC Newsgathering. "You are changing what you're representing, and if you're changing it, it shouldn't be there. 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.

As he judged this year's NPPA TV editing contest, Brad Ingram of WGHP-TV in Greensboro, N.C., said he saw too many examples in which music was used to "mask problems with the story and used to fix spots in the story where too often the elements weren't there."

Storm agreed. Music works best, he said, when the photojournalism carries the storyline and contains the narrative, not because narrative is missing. Music "doesn't make a piece work -- all the elements have to be working. It's like another gear you have."

Yet a musical score is often the go-to tool for editors who "can't think of another way to make strong bridges between scenes or otherwise choreograph appropriate story movement," Kennedy said.

Journalists should use caution in looking to the film industry for guidance, said Amy O'Leary, a multimedia producer at, noting a favorite quote from film editor Walter Murch: "Most movies use music the way athletes use steroids. There's no question that you can induce a certain emotion with music -- just like steroids build up muscle. It gives you an edge, it gives you speed, but it's unhealthy for the organism in the long run."

"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," argued documentary editor Jonathan Menell. "It can add an emotional element, but can also set a story apart from real world. 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, your standards for adding music may vary within story genres.

The American Press Institute makes this distinction in its guidelines:

Light music that fits the tone of a feature story can enhance a video ethically. Using music for dramatic effect in a serious drama may be manipulative or emotional in an inappropriate way. The more serious or sensitive the story, the more careful you should be in using background music.

Kennedy said there are very specific areas -- as part of an introduction to a project or with time-lapse elements -- in which music has been used successfully at, generally "to add a touch of rhythmic counterpoint (often whimsical) to the flow of photos."

Music is not a universal language.

A breathtaking aria to one person is grating noise to another.

Because people's reactions to music are influenced by their personal tastes, music and mood, you can never be certain how you affect a story by adding a piece of music. "When is one person's sadness another person's outrage?" Tompkins asked.

"A certain bit of music may make me feel sad," said Angela Grant, who runs the News Videographer blog. "Maybe the story was actually sad, so that music is true to the scene. One person may hear that music and feel the right level of sadness. Another person may be affected more by the music, and feel much sadder.

"So has your music still accurately represented the sad feeling that was present at the scene? It's really impossible to say because it's so subjective. It'll be different for everyone."

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

Most of us are not skilled in the use of music with video. As with photography and writing, there is a high level of craft to doing it well, both in selecting music and editing it. In fact, Storm is now looking at adding someone skilled in musical scoring to his team.

O'Leary, who worked at "This American Life" before before she went to, said there is a big difference between dropping a piece of music into a slideshow or video and doing it well. "One of the great things I learned from Ira [Glass, the host of "This American Life"] is that the moment that you take music out, it shines a spotlight on whatever comes next. If you really want people to pay attention, you stop the music right before that. In audio we have two tools: sound and silence. To use music all the time, you've wiped out the chance to use silence."

The music itself generally must be edited, which takes an understanding of music and scoring and a lot of skill with audio editing. "Even on slideshows I've done that are all music, I went back and carefully edited the music so photos appeared on certain beats," O'Leary said. "You're hearing music that gives you an inkling of something, then builds."

The bottom line is this: Music should not lessen our stories, and we should not manipulate our viewers' emotions. That means that if you're considering adding music to any piece, you need to be cautious and thoughtful and respect the integrity of your story.

CLARIFICATION: The original version of this story mischaracterized Amy O'Leary's position on looking to the film industry for guidance. The sentence has been changed in this version.

How does your news organization handle music in multimedia projects?

  • Regina McCombs

    Regina McCombs is a faculty member of The Poynter Institute, teaching multimedia, and social and mobile journalism. She was the senior producer for multimedia at in Minneapolis-St. Paul for 11 years.


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