Perspective: Why You Shouldn’t Use Music in Broadcast Stories

Adding music to a news story is equivalent to editorializing, and should be avoided.

Nothing bugs me more than news stories with music.

I know, I know, I’ve heard the argument: “The pros do it!”  But the pros do a lot of things, like buy helicopters to follow high speed car chases, and dedicate valuable airtime to segments about Justin Bieber’s love life. Just because someone gets paid to put content on the air doesn’t make it right, or good, or something we should emulate.

So what’s a broadcast teacher or staff member to do? And is all music a bad idea in every circumstance?

First, think about your goals for the story, the mission of your publication, and the ethical guidelines of all journalists. Try to provide unbiased facts to the audience so that they can make up their mind about a topic or person or event. Music creates a bias because it comes from outside the situation and facts, and because it is placed into the story by the reporter, just like an opinion.

Ask yourself why you have music in the background in the first place. If you have placed music in a story to enhance drama or create a mood, then you’re using it solely to manipulate your audience, and you shouldn’t do it. A well written, shot and edited story will allow the inherent drama, humor or tragedy of the topic to come through, and doesn’t need the crutch of music to be powerful or effective.

Alternatives to canned music

Use natural sound (NATS) creatively. The sound of an event or location is like a form of music itself, and when mixed with soundbites, creates a rhythmic tapestry that gives the audience a sense of what it was like to be there.

Use music recorded at the event, which is part of the story anyway. Sporting events often have the band playing, drama performances have soundtracks.

It’s ok to use music when….

If you’re making a promo video, PSA, satirical piece or other non-news project, then it’s perfectly fine to use royalty-free music. Just don’t do it for news, features or even sports stories.

Ethics policies of other major news organizations regarding music and news can be viewed in this article from the Poynter Institute.

Michael Hernandez is an Apple Distinguished Educator who teaches film and broadcast journalism at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, CA. Follow him on Twitter: @cinehead

Michael Hernandez

Michael has taught Film/Video Production and Broadcast Journalism since 1999, and advises the Pacemaker-winning Mustang Morning News. He regularly presents seminars on journalism, video and technology-related topics, and is a former JEA National Broadcast Adviser of the Year. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cinehead

Michael Hernandez has 52 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Hernandez

2 thoughts on “Perspective: Why You Shouldn’t Use Music in Broadcast Stories

  • February 26, 2021 at 6:42 pm

    David Muir – ABC

  • April 17, 2023 at 2:04 pm

    Total agreement for several reasons.

    1. People with poor auditory discrimination find it very difficult to filter out the words from the background noise – whether that is bad weather, heavy machinery or deliberate noise like music.

    2. Too often it trivialises or even ridicules a story. I have seen “professional” news broadcasts playing upbeat music while talking about a mass shooting. Death and destruction with an upbeat jingle playing??? Hideous.

    3. It’s distracting – even people that have good hearing often do not want to have a distraction playing at them while they process what it happening.

    Overall, background music for noise stories is a bit like the background music they play in cheap shops. Annoying, unwanted – but the “professionals” think it makes for a more “polished” experience.

    There tends to be an inverse relationship too, to the VOLUME of the noise / music. The more professional, the quieter (or total absence) of noise. The cheaper the shop or low-budget the studio, the louder the unwanted noise/music.

    Try a few channels and see – the “XYS-LOCAL NEWS” will have loud noise played at you – as does the £1 shop / dollar store shop. The high end shop and the National News Service will be more muted – or noise-free.

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