If you’ve seen this BuzzFeed coverage of an emotional Olympics race, or this chronicling of gymnastic detail on The Atlantic Wire, then you’ve recently watched two nifty examples of animated journalism GIFs. (Note: I didn’t say GIFs about journalism, like these news cats. Hopefully you’ve already seen those.)
The success of GIF-infused content in actual news content has some media circles buzzing around a longtime internet graphic capability: “Is this an overlooked tool, or just a fad?, “Are we Buzzfeedifying maintsream news orgs, or is that a silly question now?”, and “should journalists embrace them, or are they somehow detrimental to the craft?”
They aren’t all simple questions, and I don’t have answers. (I actually posed questions here, too.) But I can comfortably say there are indeed reasons the animated GIF can work well to tell a story online. Likewise, there are reasons it may not.
Putting other debates aside, here are five simpler questions for journalists to consider on a case-by-case basis before using an animated GIF to help digitally tell your story.
Why are you using an animated GIF? (What motivated you?)
Bad answer: “It seems popular right now.“
Reasonable answer: “I can’t use video, right? NBC (or someone else) owns that. This shows some motion.”
Good answer: “Images can be good on their own, and video can be best sometimes, too, but I feel this frame-by-frame illustrates something in a way both mediums cannot.”
It could be a “renaissance,” or it could be a fad. Either way, your priority in choosing an online tool should always be determining whether or not the tool can further tell your story.
If you pass this litmus test, continue to the next question. If not, find another tool.
What is the subject of this GIF? (Why that subject?)
Bad answer: “This copyrighted thing, of course!”
Reasonable answer: “Maybe this funny thing?”
Good answer: “This newsworthy thing we captured. It shows motion or emotion, or both.”
It’s still unclear where copyrights lay with GIFs. It’s also easy to succumb to the popularity of the funny ones and place those in a story instead of something perhaps with more journalistic value. It all depends on your coverage area and audience, of course, but focus on “what” by following your good answer to “why”—the nature of a GIF can show happiness or pain or a fail or a feat in a powerful way.
Capitalize on strong subject matter.
Where are you placing this GIF? (What is the benefit?)
Bad answer: “Duh, I’m placing 20 on my homepage.”
Reasonable answer: “My article for views of course. But uh…Directly on Tumblr, too. Probably?”
Good answer: “I don’t know. I’ll try something and see how it works.”
GIFs in news aren’t wholly new, but it’s nonetheless unclear what tactic will get more eyeballs on your content. Furthermore, who knows what outcome is more helpful to your outlet: should GIFs be just on your website, or would placing them both there and a Tumblr blog be a better bet by boosting community? Will the extra shares help, or will the GIFs overshadow any written content?
Decide on a strategy that fits your needs.
How are you making this GIF? (Why that approach?)
Bad answer: “Wait. . .I can’t just reshare something someone else did?”
Good answer: “I can stitch it together myself with Photoshop.”
Ann Friedman did a great job outlining “How to GIF” over at Poynter. The process doesn’t have to take long – note, a good one probably may – but you should first evaluate the pros and cons of different approaches, along with the demands of your time and desires of your usage.
Nail down a GIF-making method and stick it in your toolbox.
Who are you reaching with this content? (Which side does it help?)
Bad answer: “The whole internets. Who doesn’t like GIFs?”
Reasonable answer: “Maybe all the people who like cat GIFs, which you know, has to be a lot.”
Good answer: “A lot of people online probably, but like everything else, I understand it depends on the makeup of my readership.”
Anyone can see a page with your GIF, and perhaps they’ll share it an applaud it, but recognize who will most likely see it in the information overload, along with those who may most appreciate it. GIFs have a wide appeal, but who knows whether your particular readership will appreciate them.
Know your tools, and definitely consider adding GIFs in, but as always, first know your audience.