Why GIFs help make good stories

As Twitter prepares to celebrate its tenth birthday, its influence on journalism is significant. As part of a series leading up to its tenth birthday, SPJ Digital is looking at Twitter’s influence, as well as best practices and advice.

Here, Randi Shaffer of the Chicago Tribune explores the rise of GIFs, and as news of tests emerge on Twitter, why they can become valuable in telling a story.

News isn’t static. So the way that we share it shouldn’t be, either.

That’s why media outlets use a combination of tools — such as words, photos, videos and social media — to tell a story. One of those tools — GIFs — is becoming a lot more commonplace in the digital storytelling word.


The Ron Swanson GIF during the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2015 Stanley Cup run. (Screenshot by the author)

Mashable reported that Twitter recently started beta testing a new feature: a keyboard that allows the user to easily access a range of GIFs browse-able by category or search bar. The feature makes inserting a GIF into a tweet just as easy as inserting an emoji.

The GIF button is awesome for people who love using GIFs to tell a story, like some of us here at the Chicago Tribune.

The Tribune has used GIFs on its social platforms to tell stories on multiple occasions. During the Blackhawks’ 2015 run to the Stanley Cup, our digital team posted several well-received Ron Swanson GIFs along with post-game score recaps.

While Nick Offerman has absolutely nothing to do with post-season hockey, the Parks and Rec character is over-the-top expressive. Using GIFs of Swanson’s reactions was a great way to emulate the anxiety, joy and frustration felt during the roller coaster-ride of a playoff series.


Some user reaction to the Ron Swanson GIF. (Screenshot by the author.)

It’s not just Twitter. GIFs work great for telling stories on other social media platforms that the Tribune has a presence on. The head of our social media team — my boss, Social Media Editor Scott Kleinberg, has been pretty proactive about experimenting with new social app Peach. He uses GIFs — along with more traditional mediums — to tell stories on the platform.

Kleinberg said he uses GIFs when sharing personal and professional content on multiple social media platforms.

“GIFs make storytelling fun,” he said. “While some stories always have to be told straight, not all do. And the ones that don’t that lack compelling art can really benefit from a fun GIF.”

Even if a GIF isn’t directly related to the story at hand, like in the Blackhawks/Ron Swanson example, the emotion of the GIF is a great way to capture and express the emotion of a thought or story.

Whitney Carlson, another social media assistant here at the Tribune, created our Tumblr page in mid-2014. Carlson said she relies heavily on GIFs for an engaging following, since they’re more dynamic than a photo and less of a time investment than a video.

“They’re useful on Tumblr, especially, where the audience is younger and greatly appreciates pop culture references,” she explained. “The perfectly placed GIF can capture the attention of people on your website or social platform, and on the fast-paced Internet, capturing someone’s attention, even if just for a few seconds, is a feat.”

GIFs work for the Tribune off social media, too.

Randi Shaffer of the Chicago Tribune says the GIF is a welcome addition to storytelling, especially on Twitter. (Photo via the author's LinkedIn profile)

Randi Shaffer of the Chicago Tribune says the GIF is a welcome addition to storytelling, especially on Twitter. (Photo via the author’s LinkedIn profile)

Earlier this month, we ran a story about “The Strandbeest”, a moving sculpture in downtown Chicago. Tribune Video Editor Brian Nguyen said pairing a GIF with the story was a natural fit for the nature of the content.

“The still images didn’t do the story justice because it’s all about how these sculptures move,” he explained. “The GIF allowed us to show the sculpture in motion without taking the reader out of the written part of the story.”

GIFs work well to bridge the gap between photos and videos. They allow the storyteller to illustrate moments — like photos – while providing additional visual context — like videos.

“(GIFs condense) a lot of information into a looping, immediate and accessible form,” Nguyen said. “There’s less friction between the GIF and the reader than the video.”

Because logistical barriers to using and consuming GIFs are rapidly dwindling, media outlets should embrace GIFs, Nguyen added.

The once-tedious process of making a GIF has become commonplace, so now, the only challenge with using a GIF is identifying and creating an editorial process for it.

“If you look at GIFs as a culture rather than a file format, you’ll see hugely innovative ways of storytelling,” Nguyen said, echoing Carlson’s thoughts.

The eyeroll gif.

The eyeroll gif.

That’s also how I use GIFs personally. I love the GIF keyboard function in Facebook Messenger. Having it so easily accessible makes it easier to convey emotion — especially in a text medium, where heavy sarcasm can often have unintended consequences.

A perfectly placed Krysten Ritter eye roll takes only a few seconds to find, send and loop, and the entire experience adds a whole new level of context to a text-only conversation.

And, when you only have 140 characters to tell a story on Twitter, easy access to a context-enhancing GIF keyboard is a welcome addition.

Randi Shaffer is a social media assistant at the Chicago Tribune. A former reporter, Randi is a graduate of Central Michigan University and loves corgi videos, hockey and coffee. You can interact with Randi on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Digital community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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