The ethics of music

Back in the old days when I worked at CBS News, the standards manual clearly prohibited the use of music in news stories unless it was captured at the scene. If we did use music, we had to show the source–video of the band playing, the car radio, whatever. These days, there’s music all over TV news stories, added from CDs and audio samplers stations buy the rights to use. Is that ethical?

News Videographer’s Angela Grant (bless her) says no. In her view (and mine), adding music puts an editorial spin on stories:

I really believe that the music is adding feelings and emotions that weren’t present in the actual story. The music is telling the viewer how to feel about the story. Since [the videographer] is the one who chose the music — He’s telling the viewer how they’re supposed to feel about the story. This is inappropriate for an objective journalist.

I’ve been fighting this battle for years to little avail. Many video editors see music as a legitimate way of adding “texture” or “pacing” to stories. They either haven’t really thought about the effect music has on the audience or they have thought about it and use music deliberately for an emotional effect. Either way, it strikes me as a violation of this clause in the NPPA Ethics Code:

Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

Music manipulates viewers’ emotions–that’s why movies have soundtracks. TV news and online news video shouldn’t emulate the movies. Adding music in post-production is a Hollywood gimmick that doesn’t belong in daily news.


3 Responses

  1. Deborah,

    I use music occasionally in my videos, although I do try to be very careful. Could you check this one out and see if you think it was inappropriate? Just looking for some feedback.

    Cow poo pens

  2. And here I thought Angela was on the side of the angels on this one (just kidding). Her short video on a man who makes “cow poo pens” uses country music throughout. Is that appropriate?

    You could argue that it’s just fine in a simple feature story like this. The music Angela has chosen is upbeat and playful, matching the mood of the pen-maker. And it’s in keeping with the visuals–the man’s wearing a cowboy hat and shirt, after all. So what’s the harm?

    In my view, when you add music you take away something else–the opportunity to share an experience with the viewer. That’s one reason stories viewers respond to stories with lots of nat sound. There could have been more nats, up full, in this piece if the music hadn’t been added.

    Beyond that, consider the viewers’ expectations. Do people expect stories on your site to use music? My guess is they don’t. I watched a bunch of other stories that didn’t use it. So why add it? Was it because the main character is such a slow talker? In other words, did you add it to “fill the gaps?”

    I also wonder if using the term “video” is part of the problem. In a news context, I don’t think we should be talking about producing “videos.” It seems to open the door to adding music. I’m not a big believer in hard and fast rules, but in my book, music just isn’t needed in stories like this. Is it legit for long-form holiday features? Maybe. As John Goheen, three-time TV photographer of the year, says, “When you use music people get a false impression of reality.” Not what we’re supposed to be about in the news biz.

  3. Thanks Deborah. I did that story first with no music. I felt that it was pretty good, but when I added the music, it really bumped it up a level. Still a hard decision though.

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