Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Fresh eyes: what can journalists learn from musicians?

Posted in Fresh eyes series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 1, 2010

What happens when you ask a film maker or a musician about the future of journalism? What skills can the next generation journalist learn from a branding expert? As part of Fresh Eyes experts in non-journalism fields cast their eye over the digital revolution and offer their wisdom.

Christopher Ave, musician

Christopher runs the excellent Music for Media blog where he profiles great examples of music being used in multimedia pieces and shares advice on how to do it. A life long musician himself, Christopher is also a journalist with the St Louis Post-Dispatch.

Music and Journalism

Many if not most of us journalists who create content for the web came from a print background. Naturally, we are most concerned with quotes and images — things we can see.

Things we can hear? Not so much.

So when I talk about using music in a journalistic multimedia project, I often get blank stares — or outright opposition:

Music? That’s…. manipulative! How dare we FORCE viewers to feel something!

It’s not surprising that so many journalists fear using music in multimedia storytelling - a reluctance expressed here by legendary writing coach Roy Peter Clark and again here by Poynter’s Regina McCombs. Many journalists who come from newspaper backgrounds are by nature suspicious of new storytelling tools — especially those used by radio or — gasp! — television.

But the very attraction of multimedia is that it can engage all the senses.Think about the great documentarians like Ken Burns, who used original music so effectively to help tell the story of the Civil War. Does anyone feel they were manipulated by the lovely, plaintive “Ashokan Farewell”?

In an increasingly fractured media world where we find ourselves competing for eardrums as well as eyeballs, I would argue that we ban such a powerful tool at our own peril.

Still, can’t overwrought music manipulate listeners’ emotions? Can’t jarring music detract from the story narrative? Of course – just as badly chosen words or images can distract viewers.

It’s just as manipulative to lard a narrative with mournful adjectives, or to quote sources from only one point of view, as it is to use music badly.

So the real issue, in my view, is this: We should use such tools properly.

Five tips on using music for journalists

But how can a journalist without significant musical skills do that? Here are some suggestions:

01.First, this is not about the music. It’s about the story you’re trying to tell. The music MUST fit within the tone established for the story (unlike, say, a music video, where the images serve the music).

02. Don’t imply that the music you’re adding is part of the scene you’re documenting (unless of course, it is). That’s like using Photoshop to add something to a news photo. This can be a fine line, and might seem to conflict with No. 1. If you’re in doubt as to whether you’re misleading the audience by choosing a piece of music, always leave it out. Go with something else. Risking your credibility isn’t worth it.

03. Don’t steal someone else’s music. This seems obvious, but in the cut-and-paste age, the temptation is there. Don’t yield to it. Do some research – know the law when it comes to fair use, trademarks and the like.

04. So where do you find just the right music for your project? There are scads of people selling pre-recorded music online (search “royalty-free music” for an idea.) If you’re looking for something in particular, find someone who can create it for you. MySpace, despite what you’ve read, is STILL full of bands and composers who are looking to distribute or license their music; perhaps you can find the creator of some music you like who will allow you to use it for free, in exchange for the exposure. Just make sure you get the agreement in writing. Or…..

05. Can’t find precisely the right music? Try creating your own. With tools like Garage Band and Acid, plus the plethora of free and low-cost loops out there, this might be easier than you think, especially if you have some time and the inclination to play around.

Here’s some music composition advice from Jon Patrick Fobes, a picture editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and a talented musician who often creates original music for the newspaper’s website:

Have a beginning, middle and end. Vary the instrument voices. Don’t be afraid to change gears. And don’t be afraid to go minimal. Let the music serve the visuals, not overpower them. Don’t be afraid of silence! Put in some drama.

And here’s some excellent advice from MediaStorm’s Eric Maierson, one of the most thoughtful users of music in the multimedia world.

Finally, there are many, many examples of the skillful, effective and ethical use of music in nonfiction multimedia projects. Watch, listen and study.

So yes, be careful when using music in any nonfiction project. But I believe we journalists should embrace music – that is, music used with skill and restraint. As we fight tooth and nail for viewers and readers,  I believe it’s a tool we can’t afford to do without.

Christopher Ave, who directs political and government coverage for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch/STLtoday.com, is a lifelong musician and career journalist. He blogs at christopherave.wordpress.com and creates music for a variety of uses at www.christopherave.com.

Tomorrow: what can journalists learn from a coding expert?

About these ads

8 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. [...] idea was to ask several people active in disparate fields to talk about the future of journalism. My contribution, about music and journalism, was posted today. [...]

  2. Will Peach said, on March 1, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Firstly, Adam, this is a great feature and one I will be watching closely over the next few days.

    Christopher, you give some great information in your post. When you come to talking about creating music for video purposes, where can we go to get free loops for use in Garageband etc? Is there a creative commons community for loop sounds that people can access out there?

  3. Christopher Ave said, on March 1, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    I confess that I don’t use Garageband, but I do use loops! I have no secret source for free ones, but there are millions out there on the Internet. And you can always make your own: http://bit.ly/cr5EI2 . Or improve on ones you find: http://bit.ly/9Et4Rq

  4. [...] Fresh Eyes: what can journalists learn from a musician? [...]

  5. [...] I was recently asked to write a guest post sharing some of what I’ve learned about data from my studies, random experimentation and musings that consume my life.  This is part of Adam Westbrook’s Fresh Eyes series, where he asks people within and without journalism with non-traditional perspectives to talk about how journalists can improve their craft.  The other piece so far comes from a journalist specializing in better using music in our multimedia. [...]

  6. [...] All three pieces manipulate shutter speed, aperture and filters, as well as grading in post production to create their aesthetic. They also all use music effectively – another tool which shouldn’t be an afterthought (check out Christopher Ave’s contribution to the Fresh Eyes series for more). [...]

  7. [...] All three pieces manipulate shutter speed, aperture and filters, as well as grading in post production to create their aesthetic. They also all use music effectively – another tool which shouldn’t be an afterthought (check out Christopher Ave’s contribution to the Fresh Eyes series for more). [...]


Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,233 other followers

%d bloggers like this: