Monday, April 27, 2009

The Ethics of Mixing Music and Videojournalism

Regina McCombs, a Poynter Institute visual journalism instructor, has created a powerful illustration of how soundtracks can affect a video story -- illuminating the debate as to whether they have a proper place in videojournalism.

In her article, "See How Music Changes a Story," she shows three versions of the same video story, "Mom Goes to War" (featuring a pilot preparing for her second Iraq deployment and her young son). The first is with natural sound. The second adds a slow, somber keyboard track. The third features an upbeat guitar/percussion track. (Both scores are GarageBand loops -- demonstrating how easy and accessible it is for even someone with a tin ear to provide professional sounding music background.)

McCombs poses the all-important question: how do the alternate versions change the way you react to, and feel about, the story?

The ethics of adding music to a nonfiction video story has long intrigued us. Is objectivity compromised? Is reality warped? Are emotions being artificially manipulated? We've posed these questions previously. It seems to be a gray area: "60 Minutes" would never do it, but the New York Times has.

McCombs advice is to use it sparingly, not as a crutch. In her helpful guidelines, she proposes that "music should be used to enhance or further the narrative, not to compensate for incomplete reporting." Further, she notes that "music is not a universal language. A breathtaking aria to one person is grating noise to another." And she makes an excellent point by noting that the art of scoring is an esteemed professional pursuit that should not be undertaken by amateurs, no matter how simple the software.

McCombs has gone the extra mile and researched and provided a set of ethics policies regarding music in news stories that have been adopted by leading media institutions, including the New York Times, National Press Photographers Association, CBC, Radio-TV News Directors Association, and American Press Institute.

Amy O’Leary, a multimedia producer at The New York Times, offers an in-depth look at how that newspaper got past those issues to mix music and journalism in two notable video projects: “Choosing a President,” and “Choking on Growth."

(Full video and transcript on Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab.)

O'Leary says she learned everything she knows about journalism soundtracks during her stint as a producer at radio's "This American Life," but acknowledges the difference between that show's subjective first-person perspective and the Times' quest for objectivity: "The Times has long traditions and standards that they’re trying to figure out how to apply to the new media landscape. Music is one of those tricky areas."

Also from Nieman Journalism Lab, these invaluable basic audio tips from O'Leary, including what equipment to use when conducting interviews, and the proper way to use it.

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