Music in multimedia: Guidlines from Poynter’s Regina McCombs

Confused about how to use music in journalistic and other non-fiction multimedia projects?

I have previously suggested guidelines for ethical use of music in journalism and other non-fiction multimedia work, and I’ve tried to highlight similar discussions elsewhere.

Today Poynter’s Regina McCombs has issued her own proposed guidelines. I’m greatly encouraged at the growing attention that the use of music in multimedia is receiving. I agree with much of what Ms. McCombs says. A key point: Don’t use music as a crutch. She writes:

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.

However, I detect in Ms. McCombs piece a sort of latent reluctance to explore the use of music in nonfiction storytelling, one that I argue is part of the reflexively suspicious nature of journalists — especially former print journalists — and their hesitance to embrace a new tool.

Here’s my response, which I posted at Poynter:

I agree that journalists should approach the use of music with caution. But I think we are so programmed to be suspicious of music — or anything beyond words themselves — that we fail to even try, thus robbing our viewers of a powerful tool….

Having said that, I would say that most objections to music are really objections to POORLY CHOSEN music. Of course it’s manipulative to heap on slow-tempo strings in a minor key just to create the feel of sadness. It’s equally manipulative to lard narration with mournful adjectives, telling rather than showing. In both cases, I would argue, the key is using our tools properly.


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