It happened on an overcast day on the 2016 campaign trail in Iowa. Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio, in an innocent attempt to garner votes in Des Moines, accidentally hit a child in the face with a football while playing catch.
Almost instantly, a GIF of the incident shared by Bloomberg Politics flooded social media, quickly compressing the story into three seconds of watchable (and highly sharable) video. Soon, other serious news outlets like Time, the Washington Post, Politico and the Houston Chronicle were featuring the Bloomberg GIF in their reports on the incident.
Yes, we’re talking about using GIFs (short for Graphics Interchange Format) as serious journalism. No longer relegated to BuzzFeed listicles about a teenager’s worst day ever, GIFs (which WM. Ferguson brilliantly labeled as the digital equivalent of the hypnotist’s swinging watch) are often more attention-grabbing than a single image, and can capture a reader with an immediacy full videos lack.
GIFs seem to be everywhere these days. Well, everywhere except most newsrooms, where journalistic snobbery appears to be keeping a fresh and vital form of storytelling from being fully utilized.
“People have this idea, a weird duality, that a written 300-word article is quality journalism but a list post is something that is just tossed off and is cheaper to produce; it’s a nonsense,” said Luke Lewis, UK editor of Buzzfeed.
The popularity of GIFs have skyrocketed thanks to the near-ubiquitous use of mobile devices. While they appear to be a recent fad, GIFs have actually been around for more than 25 years, introduced way back in 1987 by CompuServe lead engineer Steve Wilhite (who insists it’s pronounced with a soft g, like “jif”).
For publishers, GIFs have many advantages over video, not the least of which is they require no Flash to run and work in just about any browser or on any device. The short, looped videos are designed for immediacy, which greatly enhance their sharability over social media and enable a story to reach more readers.
So aside from the occasional campaign gaffe, why aren’t more serious journalism outfits using GIFs to help their storytelling?
One major issue with GIFs is sourcing. Without a watermark or some means of identification, trying to track down the creator of a GIF is nearly impossible, which is why the sharing of GIFs without attribution is a commonly accepted practice online. Obviously creating your own GIFs is the easiest way to avoid copyright issues, but that requires resources many newsrooms stretched thin by layoffs and cutbacks can’t afford to provide.
The good news for journalists is it has never been easier to make your own GIFs. There are many online tools, like GIFsoup and MakeAGif, that support building GIFs from uploaded video and images. Even YouTube has launched its own online GIF-making tools, and sites like Imgflip will let you make gifs using most online video players.
Another point to consider when using GIFs is the history of the medium itself. The files are historically linked to a click-bait meme culture that makes many journalists shutter. In one dubious example, BuzzFeed was widely chastised for creating a post that summarized the sometimes violent conflict during Egypt’s revolution with a list of GIFs from the movie “Jurassic Park.” So editorial judgment is crucial to effectively utilizing GIFs in your newsroom.
So where to start? One obvious place is sports, which is at the core of most local news coverage. Even small town publications generally cover high school sports and posting a series of highlights from a game as GIFs (using video captured easily on most smartphones) can enhance both the sharability and short shelf life of most game stories.
“What GIFs do is sort of bridge the gap between an image and a video, which becomes incredibly useful in sports,” former BuzzFeed deputy sports editor Kevin Lincoln told Nieman Lab, noting there is a lot of dead time that needs to be waded through and edited out when filming a sporting event.
Another way media companies are utilizing GIFs is to enhance their long-form storytelling. The New York Times has been a pioneer in this area. Everyone remembers the barren, snow-covered landscape that topped their much-touted story “Snow Fall,” where an ominous looping GIF was praised as injecting “a subtle, atmospheric quality” into the feature, achieving evocative and cinematic depth.
Philly.com (where I draw sports cartoons) has done something similar, topping off long-form storytelling with simple looping GIFs to help set the mode for the reader. In a recent story about pothole problems that plague neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia, the tone of the report is set with a GIF of a car bobbing up and down as it slowly drives over a particularly damaged street.
As data journalism has grown, more newsrooms have also begun to embrace GIFs as a tool to make sometimes complex data more inviting to the reader.
In a piece about frac sand mining by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, hand-drawn GIFs were used to break down a potentially complex and dull topic into 12 easily-digestible parts. A GIF featured on the Washington Post simply and succinctly showed how U.S. territories got added as states over the years. NPR used a GIF on mobile to highlight the urban sprawl of Walmart. Mashable covered Apple’s new iOS launch with a GIF showing how the iPhone’s screen had changed over the years.
Newsrooms like the Huffington Post, Politico and the New York Times have even used GIFs on their homepage to garner the attention of its readers. In one instance, a story featured on the Times’ homepage about a filmmaker’s quest to document rare, underwater invertebrates was paired a simple animation of a jellyfish alongside the roaring glass model of a different jellyfish species.
The key with successfully using GIFs is understanding the type of story you’re trying to tell. Obviously, they are just a single tool in your digital toolbox and in some cases, using GIFs would be inappropriate, or could overwhelm and take attention away from your entire story.
But it’s clear there are many unexplored ways to legitimately use GIFs in journalism. It just requires the imagination of today’s visual journalists (and the will of their editors) to bring them further into the world of purposeful storytelling.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at email@example.com.