An editor once told me that if I asked 12 economists what was likely to happen I would get 13 opinions.
That line came to mind in recent days as I talked to people across NPR News about whether we do or do not allow music to be embedded in longer news stories. I'm talking about incidental music that is there, at the very least, to improve the listening experience, but otherwise has no obvious connection to the story. I'm also talking about longer pieces that are broadcast, not podcasts.
– "No ..." I was told. NPR has a rule: No music; no sound effects. We don't put anything in our broadcast pieces that isn't "true" to the stories.
– "Sure ..." I was assured. We've been adding music for years when it's felt that "scoring" would improve a piece.
– "Well ..." others said. Music can be used as a bookend or to create a bridge between sections of a long report. But it should never be layered beneath reporting.
– "But ..." began some. If it's obvious to listeners that the music is being used in a feature in a humorous way or in a long news story to set off a particular section, it's OK to run it beneath the script.
– "Only ..." said some. Music may be OK in features, but only rarely and with a "less is more" approach. That is, be sparing. We're making news stories, not movies.
There was agreement on one thing. Music can't be used in news stories to make editorial statements or to steer a listener toward judgments or conclusions. We don't do those things – just as we would not tell the audience how to feel about the news we're reporting.
But, but, but ... what is an editorial statement and when is something manipulative? We can't agree. There's a "know it when we see it" sense.
After all that, here's where are:
– There is no rule against putting music into broadcast pieces. It's been done and is being done every week in features or special projects. Listen to WESUN's "For The Record" series, a recent "Hidden Brain" piece that was recast for radio, Morning Edition's report on "How The Libyan Revolution Opened The Door To The Islamic State" and the "Changing Lives of Women" essay from the "gray-haired granny" who has gone "punk rock." Judge for yourself whether the music worked.
– Even those who advocate for the use of music say that "because it sounds cool" is not a reason to use it. Don't do this either: Add music in the hope it will make a bad story better. There's a problem with the story. Fix it or kill it.
– There's agreement that music must be treated like any other piece of our journalism. An informed, editorially based decision is crucial. Be prepared to answer this question: "What's that doing there?"
– We're also in agreement that incidental music should not be layered beneath straight-forward, standard news stories.
– "Less is more" is a very important concept. Yes, there's a case to be made that we need to keep up with the times and that some popular podcasts (including NPR's) use music very effectively. But, we care deeply about principles such as honesty, transparency and fairness. Adding music can quickly raise questions in listeners' minds about whether we're staying true to our principles. A decade ago in Jonathan Kern's Sound Reporting, Jay Kernis said that music could be added to "certain feature stories and mini-documentaries — on rare occasions." The occasions are probably less rare these days, but we're still thinking that they should be carefully considered.
This isn't a "thou must" or "must not" note, as you can see. We have to take these thoughts and apply them as cases come up. That means talking to each other. Executive producers and desk heads need to be in on decisions about whether music should or shouldn't be used in broadcast pieces. They should bring in the DMEs (Chuck Holmes and Gerry Holmes) or standards & practices editor (Mark Memmott) if outside opinions are needed. In coming months, watch for training opportunities about the use of music.