In June, the New York Times Magazine published a 10,000-word article by Nikole Hannah-Jones about segregated schools in New York City.
Those who read the article online or on mobile devices may have noticed a subtle multimedia element buried halfway through the content: a graphic showing the shifting school zones for two Brooklyn schools. Just as the school zones changed over time, so did the visual — automatically fading to the new school district zone lines.
This animated GIF (or Graphics Interchange Format photo) helped readers see movement without requiring them to click play on a video or interact with a graphic.
Although GIFs are commonly associated with blooper video replays and listicles, they are also being used in more subdued ways by serious news outlets like The New York Times.
Take, for example, another GIF the Times ran a couple of days after the school article. On June 16, Times Insider staff compiled a time-lapse to chronicle how it covered the Orlando nightclub shooting.
The single GIF takes readers through about 40 different screenshots of the homepage, between 4:26 a.m. June 12 and 9:04 a.m. June 16. It showed how the headlines, information and placement of the story changed as the news evolved.
The time-lapse was created in GIF form, and it repeats automatically as readers browse the text details about the news decisions the Times staff made in the days following the shooting.
It’s simple. It involves movement. And it happens without requiring action from the audience.
If you’re looking to use GIFs in your news reporting, here are some tips on when and how.
CHARTS AND GRAPHS
GIFs work extremely well for time-lapses that show geographical change.
In April, the Los Angeles Times used a GIF to show a time-lapse map of the spread of an invasive beetle in California.
Vox has used GIFs to track the growth of slavery and the spread of marriage equality rights, among other topics.
FEATURE STORY PROMOS
GIFs can be found in promotional images for feature stories, such as with the Washington Post’s Zika risk assessment and the Wall Street Journal’s electoral map interactive. The Atlantic, in January, featured a GIF banner atop a story on aging, which showed a woman looking into a mirror. The GIF rotated images of the woman at different ages in the reflection.
Vox added subtle movement to two graphics in 2015, when it wrote about states that passed laws requiring students to learn cursive. The graphics look like someone is actively drawing the details on the map.
Meanwhile, Cinemagraphs are gaining popularity among fashion and travel photographers. The still photographs incorporate subtle movement, such as wind blowing grass or eyes blinking, that play on repeat through an animated GIF.
In 2015, The Washington Post published a Kevin Durant free agency dress-up GIF alongside a news story. The GIF rotated different teams’ uniforms over an image of Durant dunking a basketball, while the text detailed the benefits and drawbacks of Durant joining each team.
In May, entertainment magazine The Wrap ran stop-motion photo GIFs of Emmy contenders to go with feature stories on the actors. In one image, Keegan-Michael Key appears to spin on one foot during a photo shoot.
CREATE YOUR OWN
Creating GIFs has become simplified by online GIF generators like MakeAGif.com and Giphy.com. These sites and others allow you to upload photos, videos and even links to YouTube videos to create simple GIFs and add your own text.
The downside is that each comes with its own watermark, and they don’t allow much design flexibility.
For those who want to make their GIFs more customized, Photoshop allows creating GIFs from videos and image layers.
To do so, use the Timeline feature and save for the web. Several helpful video tutorials are available online by searching “make a GIF in Photoshop.”
Consider the ethics of using GIFs in news stories. GIFs often mean changing a visual, so any illustration should be labeled as such.
The key to effective GIFs for serious news is to create movement with purpose. Keep the message in the GIF simple, and don’t make transitions happen too fast, or you might lose your audience.
Finally, don’t make your readers seasick with too much movement or too many GIFs on the same page.
Jodie Mozdzer Gil is an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University and the treasurer for the Connecticut SPJ chapter. On Twitter: @mozactly