Multimedia. Everyone is talking about it. It has become the magic word, the buzzword, the catch-all phrase for people in the journalism industry. It is also one of the most polarizing words in the journalist’s lexicon. 


But the question remains, what is multimedia?


“Multimedia journalism is journalism,” says Kim Grinfeder, a visual journalism professor at the University of Miami. “The distribution channels have changed. Our content gathering tools have evolved. But the essence of it is still the same. We want to tell the stories that are out there. It just got richer than it was before.”


We believe the phrase “multimedia journalism” is redundant, and we predict that in the future this site will refer to journalism standards in general, rather than a specialized disparate type of journalistic reporting.


Whether you agree or not, the fact remains that however vague the word may seem, multimedia represents an important concept, and one that we must try to understand as journalists if we are to ever emerge from this paradigm shift.

“Multimedia journalism is journalism.” – Kim Grinfeder

We’re in the midst of it now. And like scientists, many of us are testing different hypotheses to develop new standards for journalism.


However, we need to realize that this change won’t affect the fundamentals of storytelling; instead, it will alter the logistics and workflow that go along with journalism.


“The classic narrative still works,” says Brian Storm, president of Media Storm. “Beginning, middle, end.  Surprise, working to an apex in a narrative, having a resolution. These are conventions that I think we are not necessarily reinventing right now just because the distribution model changed.”


Most experts agree that multimedia journalism refers to an expansion of our craft, made possible by the Internet and other digital devices, where we can tell stories through more platforms than we ever thought would be available to us.


With the Internet came the integration of tools such as videos, slideshows, and infographics into one form of journalism, which enabled us to tell more in-depth, complete stories than we did before. On the Web, users are able to interact with content and reorganize it to focus on what interests them.


As these new platforms become more of the standard, the term “multimedia” will lose its relevance, because it will become synonymous with journalism.

We interviewed 13 industry leaders and asked them their thoughts on multimedia. Not surprisingly, while many of them agreed on a loose definition, most still disagree about certain specifics, and the main point of contention was the use of music in multimedia pieces.

Topics discussed

With new storytelling tools come new ethical dilemmas for which industry standards have yet to be developed. Most experts agree that music is a powerful tool that can easily skew the narrative and inject the creator’s opinion into a story. Some feel that music is a crutch and should be avoided entirely, while others believe it is okay to use in feature stories but not in hard news. 


Brian Storm, who some categorize as an advocacy journalist, is known for using music to elevate the message of his narratives. He agrees that music can ruin a story if used incorrectly.


Our subjects also discuss what they feel should be the categories in multimedia journalism contests. Because of the elusive nature of the term “multimedia,” it follows that multimedia competitions have yet to be judged appropriately. Organizations need to re-assess their current categories, and come up with new ones that reflect the medium.


Today most categories focus on either the content or the production side of a multimedia piece. Pamela Chen, Senior Communications Coordinator for the Open Society Institute, feels that multimedia journalism should be judged much like the Academy Awards, where categories would include editing, cinematography, production, audio, design and similar areas.


Some contests have already updated their categories to allow for innovations in the medium. The Online News Association, for example, has overhauled its categories for this year’s Online Journalism Awards to better reflect the accomplishments of multimedia storytelling.


One thing that’s certain is that storytelling is still the most important criteria in evaluating multimedia. Production value is important only insofar as it helps to advance the story.  

“The classic narrative still works.” – Brian Storm


In the end, no matter what criteria professionals may establish, the audience’s evaluation will be the most valuable, says Kenneth Irby, visual journalism group leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.


Because of the Internet, not only do users have more easily accessible sources of information, but now they can also interact with the providers of the information by submitting their own comments and content.


Media experts point to meaningful examples of citizen journalism.  Community bloggers worked for National Public Radio on election night to help report the news. The “New Hard Times” series by The New York Times relied on user-submitted videos of people discussing life during the Great Depression. Twitter users recently contributed to NPR’s hurricane coverage, by helping to locate the storm and by generating damage updates.


It’s not a matter of if traditional news organizations will accept pictures, videos and other content submitted by citizens, but a matter of how. How will that information be vetted? How will it be verified? How will it be used?


The key to success is allowing people to contribute to the discourse in a pointed way that is not open-ended, experts say.


The video submission policy for the “New Hard Times” project is a good example. It called for specific stories, and included tips to make sure videos met traditional audio and visual standards, including no shaky shots or loud background noises.


The challenge is really separating out the good stuff from everything else that flows in on a daily basis, says Tom Kennedy, former managing editor of multimedia at Washington “I think it’s our job to help shape the filtering mechanisms and to be useful guides to what we find to be the most creditable, useful, verifiable information that we can be presenting.”

The future

The future of multimedia journalism is all over the place.  It’s on portable, hand-held devices.  It’s in the integration of audio, visual and written words. It’s in your neighbor’s blog, and in a teenager’s MySpace page.


It’s about the interaction between user and content, and about advocates and citizens becoming agenda-setters who support journalism by contributing content. But most of all, it’s about telling stories, and reaching the largest audience possible.


“The future is much like the past” – Keith Jenkins

Fundamental storytelling conventions – information, emotion, context and truth – will not change.


The key, experts say, is finding a balance between old and new.


“The future is much like the past,” says Keith Jenkins, supervising senior producer for multimedia at NPR. Text and visuals have always been a part of journalism, he says, but “the question is, what’s the mix that’s most effective?


While the audience for multimedia journalism grows as access to technology becomes cheaper, we need to remember that multimedia is all about the empowerment of the traditional storytelling process.


“We can’t be techno-freaks, addicted just for the fetish of having the newest computer,” says Leo Caobelli, co-founder of Garapa – Coletivo Multimídia. “But if this new computer will help us to put something online, to tell a story and to be able to access more people, that’s going to be a good thing.”

- Deborah Acosta