Mood News: Cue The Tears

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is the inflation rate when those pictures are coupled with a melody?

Imparting the emotional impact of a story is one of the greater challenges for broadcast reporters even with the advantage of video footage. As powerful as images can be, they can be made more so with music. Is that okay? Is adding music a legitimate way to tell a news story?

Sometimes, as Slate's Jack Shafer carped in a recent piece, the attempt to communicate what isn't exactly visible or spoken becomes a somewhat unwelcome "emotional cue":

"... [I] hate it when the news networks pair music with montages of newsworthy footage. The broadcasters usually avail themselves of this gimmick when they're wrapping up a day or half-day's worth of coverage. If I want emotional cues that music provides, I'll hire a therapist to coach me on when to sniffle and cry."

Others in the blogosphere seem perturbed over such use of music as well. One TVNewser reader e-mailed the blog about the Fox News Channel:
"Is it professional for a news channel to have melodramatic background music during reports as Fox is now doing?"

Well, is it? Do networks have guidelines for pairing music with footage? What is appropriate and what isn't? Who decides?

CBS's "The Early Show" on Sept. 2 interviewed Wynton Marsalis, the famous jazz musician and native of New Orleans, who played the trumpet as pictures of the hurricane disaster were shown

(a re-cut of the piece was also shown that night on the Evening News). A few other CBS broadcasts featured similar photo montages, but music was notably absent.

The Evening News on Sept. 3 featured this montage of still photos and clips, which were only punctuated by natural sound bites.

And "Sunday Morning" on Sept. 4 featured this series of photos overlapped with a recap essay by Harry Smith.

CBS News has some explicit standards about the use of music over pictures. PE spoke with Linda Mason, the senior vice president of standards and special projects, who discussed CBS News standards on the subject. The Wynton Marsalis piece was "really special" said Mason, "and editorially, I thought it was fine" because of Marsalis' relevance to the story. But using music solely to elicit an emotional response "is stereotypical and it's cliche" she said.

While instances are reviewed on a case by case basis, CBS' hard news programs generally do not show montages of photographs overlapped by music or use music that isn't coming from the pictures on the screen. Mason explained that CBS News standards state, "Music cannot be used as a substitute for solid storytelling, strong interviews and compelling pictures. Music cannot be used merely to manipulate emotion." Mason added that "the news division is sensitized" to those devices. "It's an easy way to make a piece emotionally grabby. It's more difficult to achieve that effect by reporting, but that's what we are supposed to do."

For each broadcast, it is the executive producers who decide what's appropriate. PE spoke with Michael Bass, Senior Executive Producer of "The Early Show," about how he makes those determinations. "We never use any music on hard news pieces," said Bass. "We use it on sports pieces to enhance the story more or in a feature, but never on a hard news story." The Marsalis piece, in which the performer improvised live over the pictures, "was a proper use of playing music to the pictures. ... If we were doing an interview with any other person who was from New Orleans or was a victim, their perspective would be in words and in this case, this was one way for Wynton Marsalis to answer a question—by playing his trumpet to those pictures."

In major stories like Katrina, the broadcast will often use montages of photos, but will overlay them with natural sound, a voice over or sound from those who are a part of the event, says Bass. "Occasionally there will be still pictures where there might be a music bed that is subtle, but it's not used to manipulate -- merely to complement. ... We would not dramatize or manipulate or try to insert big crescendos at key points."

During a recurring feature on "The Early Show" about service members who died in the Iraq war, music was played in the background and as a bridge between voice overs, but it was "commemorative and subtle, like something you would hear in the background of a memorial service. I think that was an appropriate use."

Jim Murphy, Executive Producer of "The CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer," has a somewhat different view on the use of music. As far as hard news, music generally doesn't really work, Murphy said. He adheres to CBS News standards on his broadcast, and says that everything is evaluated on an individual basis. But he disagrees with some of those standards that govern the use of music in features or other stories. "We underplay our role as producers," said Murphy. "We have a whole set of tools to make television production as good as it can be and one of them we leave out on purpose. Sometimes music makes things better."

Murphy continued: "We established a bunch of rules a long time ago so that people would take us seriously and we have not changed those rules, although the world has changed dramatically."

And what about the Jack Shafers of the world who argue that music is a manipulative emotional cue? "What is wrong with touching music over touching photos?" said Murphy. "Music enhances the visual experience. We act as if it's just pure for pictures or video to speak for itself. I don't see anything wrong with adding music."

Still, as for the use of music over pictures during the Katrina coverage, Murphy said he didn't think it was appropriate, partly because it isn't necessary: "Pictures, sounds, words of correspondents are so compelling that it would make you whine at the person who added it if there was music behind pictures like that. You care about it so deeply that you are already drawn to it ... you're there."