GIFs in News: More Than Just the LOL
Credit: Kate Andries
October 22, 2013

When Apple introduced a new mobile operating system in September, Mashable told the story in a non-traditional way – through a series of images displayed chronologically in an animated GIF.

Readers saw the various incarnations of the operating system through screen shots of the system’s home page, from the first iPhone to iOS7, each lasting for about half a second.

Until recently, GIFs have been used on the Internet primarily as comedic memes. They tell a quick story, leaving viewers with giggles, “OMGs” and “This is the story of my life” moments.

But journalists are starting to use GIFs for another purpose: to tell news stories. From BuzzFeed and Mashable to The Washington Post and The New York Times, reporters are incorporating GIFs into stories to help present information to their audiences – and according to them, it’s working.

GIF – which stands for Graphics Interchange Format – is an animated image or series of images that lasts a few seconds but repeats itself over and over until one exits a web page. Steve Wilhite invented the GIF in June 1987.

The short animation did not really add anything to web pages in the early days. Simple GIFs – like dancing bananas, basketballs spinning and stick figures waving – served as gimmicky, futile attempts to keep readers engaged on pages.

But between 2006 and 2008, millennials began embracing the GIF as they started seeing them on then-new websites like Tumblr, which has since grown famous for displaying a multitude of GIFs created by individual users.

The popularity of GIFs skyrocketed, featuring pop culture moments that speak to a generation of young people.

BuzzFeed in particular uses GIFs in many of its articles, including list pieces like “18 Photos That Prove Berlin Has The Best Street Art” and “19 High School Cliques Every Millennial Knows To Exist.”

But times are changing faster than that GIF you just watched. Popular websites such as BuzzFeed and Mashable are now using GIFs for more than just the “LOL” factor – they’re attempting to tell real, honest stories to readers through these short, animated, looping images.

For instance, BuzzFeed writer Benny Johnson has been writing a variety of stories that interpose GIFs from movies like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and reality shows like “The Hills” to discuss the government shutdown and the crisis in Syria.

Johnson said he tries to tell the story in a narrative arc his audience is familiar with. “I feel like I have a specific audience that I’m trying to reach at BuzzFeed, and that’s millennials and that’s young kids,” he said. “I have to compete with pop culture if you’re doing straight political reporting. It’s a very, very small attention span that a lot of people in that age bracket have.”

Neha Prakash, a writer for Mashable, agreed with Johnson. Prakash wrote the article about the release of iOS7 which featured a few GIFs showing the evolution of the Apple interface. “Things like GIFs make things a lot more accessible to people who aren’t maybe interested in reading a 2,000 word feature on the evolution of iOS7,” she said. “Things like GIFs are visual ways of storytelling…it gave them a quick easy way to understand the evolution of Apple and what they had been doing.”


Image: Reddit, Cer0zer0

And they’re not the only ones. The Washington Post, The New York Times and more are experimenting with GIFs in news, too.

Dylan Matthews, a reporter for The Washington Post, used GIFs in an article explaining the fiscal cliff, making it more applicable to readers. He, like Prakash, felt readers would not gel with a longer article on the subject without a visual narrative.

“I would admit that in many ways [GIFs] sort of convey meaning that could’ve been conveyed through writing a traditional journalism article,” he said. “Many people would’ve found that article boring. The goal was to get a broader audience without sacrificing information.”

Other journalists fear that using reality show GIFs like Johnson did will take away from the seriousness of the article.

“Making light of Syria may not be the best way to explain the trauma there,” said Will Englund, a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post.

But Andy Rosenthal, The New York Times editorial page editor, noted that this slightly humorous approach can work in terms of audience understanding. “I’ve got nothing against satire in any form,” he said. “There are some subjects, I’m sure, that are too raw to joke about, and maybe the actual victims of a gas attack would be among them, but Congress, the president, and foreign policy are definitely not off limits.”

The Hills Gif

Image: BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith said GIFs, while part of what makes BuzzFeed so appealing to readers, aren’t necessary in every article.

“GIFs have been a pretty big part of the online conversation,” Smith said. “We use them a lot but so do a lot of people on the Internet…We use them when they’re useful, the same way you use 10,000 block words of text when they’re useful. The value is in trying to inform and entertain people…the forms can change a lot.”

Ultimately, Johnson’s point in transforming GIFs into quality news content is all about audience participation and understanding, something all journalists strive for in stories.

“I try to as much as I can visually represent what’s happening within our government and within Congress,” Johnson said. “If you’re writing a position paper for a foreign policy institute, there’s going to be a lot of jargon…and a set understanding of where a reader is coming from to be able to understand and interpret that position paper…There’s no reason that a 16-year-old on his skateboard Snapchatting shouldn’t be able to understand what foreign policy puts out there if he wants to.”


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