Teaching Examples

Risk and reward: What threat from amateurs?
November 3, 2006, 4:04 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

A provocative interview with Tony Sleep, a freelance editorial photographer based in London, gets at the heart of some big questions facing visual journalists today:

Photography has been emancipated by digital, but it has also turned into a bunch of headless chickens that have invented their own benchmarks — the snapshot, the banal and prurient, the instant and effortless, and above all free. It’s us pros who are out of step, not them.

The same questions about quality apply to online video as well, as witnessed in a lively debate here earlier this week.

Well, heck — we can say the same questions apply to all of journalism online, yes?

Photo by Dave Kleinschmidt

Amateurs are doing our jobs.

I don’t think this would bother us so much if: (a) journalism jobs were not under threat already, and (b) amateurs never produced good work.

My all-time favorite example of why we cannot dismiss the so-called amateurs is the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph from the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, taken by amateur photographer Charles Porter. (Porter describes that day in detail, and how he got the picture, in this excellent interview at BBC News.)

With amateur video, we have the classic case of the Rodney King beating in 1991. The video, shot by amateur photographer George Holliday, exposed a reality that many people live with every day, while their neighbors across town know nothing about it.

We must concede that amateur photographs and amateur video can be great. We have irrefutable evidence of this from the days before the Web began to replace other media as the information medium of choice.

Speed must not trump accuracy.

These are the twin burdens of journalism. We are supposed to be fast. We are supposed to be accurate and truthful in all cases, under all conditions. Well, everyone who has worked in journalism knows about the tension between these two. In a perfect world, my story would always be the first posted, published and cast — and it would be flawlessly accurate.

Amateurs can help us to be fast. To be first.

Amateurs may know little or nothing about our standards of accuracy. Everyone who has taught a photojournalism course has seen that puzzled face or heard the question, “Why can’t I Photoshop out the ugly wire, or post, or sign — if it would improve my picture?”

It’s up to professional journalists to continually educate the public about the lengths we go to to ensure accuracy. If we have lost the trust of the public, then it’s imperative for us to work hard to get that trust back. So many people today have the ability to manipulate their own personal photos — don’t you think they question the veracity of our news photos? And our video?

Video offers plenty of opportunities for staged or faked stories (remember ABC News’s unlabeled “re-enactment” in a 1989 espionage story, for which the network later apologized). Yes, this is a problem for all of us in journalism — a problem we can’t run away from. It’s much better to acknowledge the danger than to pretend it never happens.

Weegee used to move things at a crime scene before he made his picture. Every photojournalism student today is taught that to change the scene in any way is dead wrong, a violation of ethics.

I am arguing that we also need to teach the public (all of whom are amateur photographers) that these ARE our ethics.

Battling banality is our daily work.

My favorite example of banality in photojournalism is baby ducks. At least once in your life you have certainly seen a picture of cute little ducklings waddling or paddling behind their mama. I hope you did not see it on Page One, but maybe you did.

As Tony Sleep points out, our fight against the banal must be waged in content, not in technical execution — because technology has made it easy to produce a picture that is technically good, or even great:

Technical excellence has to an extent displaced “having something to say.” To put another way, there are an awful lot of perfectly executed photos around that say nothing at all except “yo!”

If you compare MSNBC.com’s “Editors’ Choice” with their “Readers’ Choice” in The Year in Pictures 2005, you’ll see another aspect of this issue. The public likes the baby ducks. Loves ’em, in fact.

This is just another part of the journalist’s job, though, and all I’m saying is that really, not much has changed. We have new tools. We have new challenges. It is our job, our responsibility, to make sure that the important stuff gets covered, gets published, cast, blogged, streamed, and posted — no matter the medium.

I don’t care if amateurs make the picture, shoot the video, write the story, dig up the dirt. I care about whether it’s true, accurate, reliable. I care about whether the public still trusts us, you, the journalists, to tell the truth, to deliver the truth.

And of course, we have to make sure the good stuff — the real journalism — is still being produced.

We can’t depend on the amateurs for that. Daily, ongoing journalism costs money.

You can always hope that an amateur might show up on the scene and send you what you need — but if you don’t have a trained, professional staff back at the editing desk, I’m afraid we’re going to be seeing a lot of baby ducks.

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3 Comments so far
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It’s the content that matters, not the presentation.

And to address Regina’s comment on the other post — that goes for text as much as for images.

Look at what Newsdesigner.com just posted — all of those beautifully redesigned newspapers — all sucking wind as their circulations continue to rapidly erode.

Content, content, content … old line journalists don’t get it … it’s starting to sound like Gannett gets it …

Comment by Howard Owens

I’m definitly learning alot from this blog.

Comment by Megan

If any video creators would like to participe on the new vMix.com contest, I don’t think it makes a difference if you are a professional or amateur. Just check it out:


Comment by Anonymous

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