Time for a Story: My Experience with Multimodality

How important is visual communication in a social media-driven world?

Image from unsplash.com / Photo by Photo by Kenny Eliason

The photo-sharing social media app Instagram was launched in 2010 and has since accumulated 1.28 billion users worldwide. In 2016, the popular app launched Instagram Stories — a feature where users can use images, videos, gifs, polls, and music to name a few, to create a visual piece of communication in the form of a ‘story’.

Instagram stories expire after 24 hours of being posted, and similarly to microblogging is a great way to anchor extra information. This mode of modern communication has formed the basis of my experience with multimodality in exploring crime journalism. But what exactly is multimodality?

The basics of multimodality

According to Jewitt et al in Introducing Multimodality, the term multimodality was first coined in the mid-1990s. They state:

“Multimodality questions that a strict ‘division of labour’ among the disciplines traditionally focused on meaning making, on the grounds that in the world we’re trying to account for, different means of meaning making are not separated but almost always appear together: image with writing, speech with gesture, math symbolism with writing and so forth.”

Simply put, it’s the combination of different modes of ‘meaning making’ such as images, text, and speech, to communicate, or in this case, tell a story.

In the 21st century, multimodal storytelling has become an effective alternative to solely relying on traditional speech and/or text. Arguably, it can be more engaging, interesting, and insightful.

Image from unsplash.com / Photo by Etienne Girardet

For many of us, multimodality is a part of our everyday lives. Over 500 million people use Instagram stories daily, which roughly equates to 86.6% of the platform’s users.

Whether used personally or professionally, I think it’s safe to say it’s an extremely popular and advantageous way to communicate, which is exactly why news organisations and journalists are utilising Instagram stories too.

Multimodality and journalism

In the world of journalism, telling a story is at the heart of the industry. So, what does multimodal journalism look like? Let’s take to Instagram and explore some recent stories…

Looking at the BBC News’ Instagram account, the below screenshots are of how they utilise multimodality on the app, by sharing recent news stories and also breaking news.

Screenshots from BBC News’ Instagram Stories

They use a condensed headline of the story in focus, anchoring this with a relevant image and link to the news story on their official website. The images serve as visual cues to the story, ultimately becoming a little bit more insightful for the viewer.

In contrast, The Washington Post’s Instagram stories at times are more intimate. Following the devastating events of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Texas on the 24th of May 2022, the below screenshots were the stories on their profile 5 days later:

Screenshots from The Washington Post’s Instagram Stories

These stories incorporate graphics, text, polls, research, and links to articles for the audience to engage with, making it as much about them as the articles they are covering and promoting.

This is a prime example of how Chiqui Esteban states:

“Readers are evolving to expect more visual, personal and interactive journalism.”

This is something I have tried to employ during my time blogging, setting up an Instagram account dedicated to exploring journalism and crime reporting, which you can find by following this link.

Time for a story (or two)…

My multimodal experience on Instagram

Instagram stories have been one of the primary methods I have used to share and promote my blog posts, as seen below:

GIF created on Canva / Content from Instagram.com

By including the titles of each blog, the viewer can choose whether or not this is something they would be interested in reading. Thus, the link to the blog is there to either be clicked on or skipped.

Also, I found that the most beneficial content from these stories surprisingly came from the use of hashtags, as I was gaining more engagement from users who follow particular hashtags like #MeToo.

Many of these stories were anchored with snippets of research from the blog being promoted, as seen below:

Graphics created on Canva / Content from Instagram.com

I wanted to present some research to the viewer to pre-empt my blog posts and their interest, anchoring this with graphics to make it more visually pleasing.

However, if there’s one thing I have learnt, it’s to use less text in the future as other multimodal features can do the talking. The more text there is, the less likely you are to draw attention from the reader. There is only a limited amount of time to read, and a small window to capture their interest. This is definitely something to be mindful of.

Here’s another example of what multimodal storytelling has been on my Instagram stories:

The Johnny Depp Vs Amber Heard defamation trial is something I have talked about in several blogs, albeit not always extensively. Although, given its popularity and vast coverage I wanted to create an Instagram story recapping what the case is about, its televised nature, and also to interact with my followers and find out their opinions through polls.

Professor Gunter Kress suggests that because our social world is filled with multimodal elements, by utilising this familiarity we can engage with the interest of the readers.

Therefore, it was important to try and use a lot more multimodal elements. I attempted to limit the use of text as much as possible, whilst still stating the important information and context behind the story.

The most notable multimodal element used was polls, as they ensured engagement from viewers interested in the case, and got them to think about their consumption of it. Polls are used quite frequently on Instagram stories, thus as Kress suggested, I could utilise this familiarity to draw in the interest of my followers.

To improve, I would definitely add some more images or GIFS to particular slides, as just having text on the screen instantly isn’t the most appealing. I also would’ve used hashtags, now being able to reflect on the extra engagement that they brought.

Things to consider

Multimodality in storytelling isn’t always as easy as it seems. So, here are some things to consider…

  • Use text sparingly: This can be difficult when trying to tell a story, as you may be concerned about leaving parts out. But, that’s where multimodal elements come in handy. What is it they say? A picture is worth a thousand words…
  • Use Instagram highlights: This is a way of collating and adding your Instagram stories to your profile, by organising them into different ‘highlights’ that people viewing your profile can look through.
  • Repost, repost, repost: Instagram stories also allow you to share posts from other Instagram accounts onto your story, which you can then use multimodal elements to have your say on the post in question.
  • Get involved with multimodality on other apps: Several social media platforms have the option to post stories, such as Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat. The more platforms you use, the bigger the audience, and the greater the engagement.
  • Canva is your best friend: The graphic design platform Canva is perfect for creating Instagram stories, giving you lots of templates and copyright-free graphics and images to use. It’s a great way to add a visually pleasing layer to your stories.
  • Don’t completely abandon text: Esteban also suggests that visual journalism is now equal to text journalism. However, this doesn’t mean to say that text is no longer important. Be considerate of how much you use it, but don’t abandon it altogether.

So, what are you waiting for? Get multimodal storytelling!

Thank you for reading! It would be great to hear what you think about multimodality in 21st-century journalism in the comments.

Be sure to keep up to date with my social media channels; Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to catch my future blog posts and thoughts about the world of crime journalism!

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Ahone Lane

Ahone Lane

Final year BA English student at Bournemouth University, focussing on issues within the area of crime journalism.