Author Mark E. Johnson

Green With Greed or Envy

Major kudos to The Irish Times for refusing to sign Taylor Swift’s contract and not publishing any images from the first of her two shows in Dublin. Not only that, they explained to their readers why they chose not to photograph her performance.

I hope this is the start of a trend.

The Halo Effect

In an interesting behind-the-scenes post on the Associated Press’ web site, Paul Colford looks into some complaints about the heavenly glow that occasionally appears behind politicians’ heads. J. David Ake, the AP Washington assistant chief of bureau of photography, notes that this issues has been raised for years – and they’ve included previous presidents with the same glow behind them as evidence.

Mark Hertzberg posted a link to this on the NPPA’s discussion list and it has generated a bit of conversation over there, most of it centered on why we cover press conferences at all when they are, to paraphrase Sean Elliot, made for tv events to start with. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to never cover them – certainly, when a president speaks, we should be there.

But the trickle down effect is strong and that’s where journalists need to step in and ask themselves what’s the real story, where is this information impacting our community – and that is where we need to put our resources. News conferences are low hanging fruit – easy to get to, easy to understand and, for a while, they can satisfy you. After a while, though, you’re left craving something more nourishing and meaningful.

And, somewhere along the line we have shortened our reach to deleterious fiscal impact. As we moved to simpler coverage – the speech instead of its content, the podium instead of the people – we’ve left our audience wanting more.

It is, perhaps, heretical to say this, but aside from presidential speeches, when it comes to politics maybe we should stop covering the news conferences visually. We can ask for the comments in advance (usually, not always) and then illustrate that.

The danger is the politicians can control the flow of information at some level. They can release the talk at the same time it takes place or schedule it so there isn’t time to do the actual reporting needed.

Is that a risk worth taking? I think so. No one remembers who was first on most news stories (despite the repeated marketing cries of news organizations). I didn’t choose my news source based on who was first, I chose it based on who gave me the most useful information.

Senator so-and-so standing in a field doesn’t tell me much beyond what the field looks like. But show me what she’s talking about and then you’ve given me something useful, something I’m willing to pay for.

An Exhibition on Ethics

Over at The New York Times’ Lens blog, James Estrin has a piece up about a new exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center titled, “Altered Images: 150 Years of Posed and Manipulated Documentary Photography.” The post has an interview with Michael Kamber, one of the co-curators and it’s worth a read.

Was happy to see that two of my major concerns – the lack of editors and the move to independents – are touched upon:

“I think the main reason is that photography is a lot more democratic today and I think that’s great,” Mr. Kamber, 51, said. “But 20 years ago there were more staff photographers, and they knew very clearly that altering a photo was a fireable offense. Newspapers are laying off photographers by the hundreds, and there are all these young freelancers who have not been properly trained in what is or is not allowable or ethical.”

When Mr. Kamber was a young freelancer, his editors looked at his contact sheets and could more easily tell if a photograph had been posed by studying the frames before and after. Today photojournalists send in single images from the field and can easily alter them on their laptop or smartphone.

Well, That Escalated …

A few days ago, Taylor Swift posted an open letter to Apple complaining about their new Music service.

I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free 3 month trial to anyone who signs up for the service. I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.

Fair enough – creators deserve to be compensated for their work. Apple even backed down and said they will pay for the plays during the free trial period.

But it turns out the agreement photographers must sign to cover her concerts is a rights grab – meaning her company, Firefly Entertainment, gets to use the work others create without compensating them.

Ahem. Kettle, this is the pot … you should chat.

Swift’s management team quickly pointed out that was incorrect.

Great! There’s a new contract that isn’t a rights grab, right?

Umm, no.

It’s still there … and it gets worse.

It still grants them, “the perpetual, worldwide right to use the published Photographs for any non-commercial purpose (in all media and formats), including but not limited to publicity and promotion …”

So it isn’t everything anymore, just what you’ve published. There are also limitations on what and where you can publish – essentially eliminating any re-licensing beyond the original usage.

So, what’s worse?

If you fail to fully comply with this Authorization, authorized agents of FEI, the Artist or the Related Entities may confiscate and/or destroy the technology or devices that contain the master files of the Photographs and other images, including, but not limited to, cell phones and memory cards, and the Photographs and any other images.

Well, that’s just mean …

What do we take away from this? Unfortunately, we’ve probably already lost the battle on this. There are too many people willing to sign away their rights for the personal thrill of covering musicians. Additionally, most artists don’t need publications to get their message out – the ability to self-publish has wiped out the need for news organizations to truly cover these events.

But if they don’t, the audience goes elsewhere.

It’s a Catch-22, isn’t it?

Which doesn’t leave many options. It would be nice if the media companies that own publishers and radio stations would step up and say no to both the contracts and giving these “artists” airtime.

I have always counseled that it no longer makes sense to cover what is easily known, journalists should expend their efforts covering that which is not known.

The Musicality of Editing Photos

Great comments from Mike Davis on the composition of a great photo edit.

An editor sees differently in one critical way – he or she was not standing behind the camera. The experience of making photographs so taints the impression of the images if you were the one who made them and it’s extremely to disengage from the experience and actually gauge the level of the image.

The Critical Instrument of the Curious

Many years ago Larry Fink was profiled in American Photo. I’d never seen his work, never heard of him – he wasn’t one of the luminaries that were discussed in photojournalism classes at the time. His style was pretty raw, yet there was a level of sophistication in the content that was beyond me – I knew it was brilliant, but I couldn’t articulate why.

I’m still not sure I can, but I love his work even more now. Oliver Laurent has an interview with him over at Time’s Lightbox that’s worth a few minutes of your time.

We’re all human, even the guy with the jet. We’re all infinitely vulnerable. With that thing in mind, we have to look at people with some degree of patience and kindness, and also with curiosity. Because every time you meet somebody, more than likely, you’ll learn something.

On my short list that I’d love to pepper with questions over coffee some day, for sure.

The Children Are Not the Enemy

David “Chim” Seymour did a post-World War II project for UNICEF, documenting the children who had survived the war. It’s a powerful set of images worth studying.

A few years ago, Carole Naggar assembled a retrospective of that work, including some unseen images, in a book I now really want to get

Time Lapse of the Making of Graveyard of the Great Lakes

Eric Seals posted a time lapse video on the editing of his latest documentary film for the Detroit Free Press. Very cool to watch … now I need to see the whole film.

My Local Newsroom is Lying to Me … AGAIN (Updated)

Two months ago, I took my local publication – the Athens Banner-Herald – to task here for deceiving its readers with the misuse of a photograph. They had a wire story about “4 twisters confirmed in Georgia after weekend storms” and a very dramatic photo of TWO tornadoes.

It didn’t seem right, and after some research I found that the photo had been shot in … Nebraska. A year earlier.

After my post, they removed the photo. Later, they appended a correction and sent me this email:

Thank you for your commentary this morning regarding the photograph that ran with the article “4 twisters confirmed in Georgia after weekend storms.” The photo has been removed and the article corrected to represent the inappropriately used photograph. I’ve attached the URL of the corrected article to this email. The Athens Banner-Herald regrets this error and is taking internal actions to correct it and assure that these mistakes are not made in the future.

I was happy with this response – they fixed the error, publicly admitted they had made it and, to me, said they would takes measures to ensure this wouldn’t happen again.

IT HAPPENED AGAIN TODAY.

This morning’s online edition featured a story headlined, “Authorities say 14-year-old fell into Chattahoochee river.” Here’s a screen capture of the page:

Screen Shot 2015 06 05 at 10 34 08 AM

From the story:

Multiple news outlets report the boy was swept beneath the rapids south of the 13th Street Bridge in Columbus around 5 p.m. Thursday.

Clicking on the photo gives us a slightly larger version of the photo, but there’s no caption:

Screen Shot 2015 06 05 at 10 34 19 AM

Here’s what triggered my concerns – the story says, “was swept beneath the rapids south of the 13th Street Bridge.” There are no rapids in that photo.

So, I plugged the address into Google Maps and looked at the satellite view:

Screen Shot 2015 06 05 at 10 35 02 AM

I see rapids south of the bridge. I also see a lot of rocks and not many trees.

I searched, with the assistance of some friends, and found the original photo, made by the Associated Press’ John Bazemore.

IN 1999.

IN ATLANTA.

Here’s the caption:

ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY JUNE 20–The Bridge over the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta, shown Wednesday, May 26, 1999, is where Wayne Williams first became a suspect in a string of murders after he was stopped and questioned when a police officer, staked out under the bridge, heard a splash. Two days after later the body of Nathaniel Cater, 27, was pulled from the river downstream. Williams was convicted of the murder of Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, whose body also had been found downstream. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The Athens Banner-Herald used a 16-year-old file photo of a bridge in a different city that’s associated with a murder to represent the bridge where a 14-year-old boy disappeared. A photo that, in tone alone (placid water versus the reported rapids) ISN’T EVEN CLOSE TO BEING ACCURATE.

I know the research says visuals get clicks. I know the research says readers are more likely to engage with a story if there are visuals. But if you are so willing to lie to your readers with visuals, what else will you lie about?

The only thing journalism organizations have is credibility. If you lose that – or, in this case, willingly give it up repeatedly – you have nothing.

To quote myself from less than two months ago:

The credibility of our industry is one of the few things we should be able to control. Market forces, reader attention spans and advertiser wanderings are things we’d like to control but, realistically, we can’t.

But we do control what we publish – and what we publish must be both accurate and truthful. If it isn’t, then what’s the point? The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, it doesn’t protect a freedom to lie.

UPDATE: The story page was updated at 11:15, about 15 minutes after my post went up, removing the photo. But there’s no correction or explanation.

UPDATE 2: An hour after the photo was removed, a correction was appended that reads, “An earlier version of this article included a photograph that depicted a bridge over the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta, not Columbus.” There is no mention that the photo was from 1999.

One Story is Not Enough

It has been a … challenging … few weeks for me. That old adage about that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? I’m hoping it’s true.

As the spring semester wrapped up, the course evaluations came in and I spent some time studying them as I always do. They were off a little from where they usually are, one or two students can make a big swing in the small classes I teach. I’m okay with them now, most of the comments fall in line with what the previous 19 semesters said.

One thing that has popped up from time to time has stuck with me, though. Every now and then a student will comment that I’m not receptive to different ideas. The mature/experienced/cynical side of me could dismiss this as being an immature/inexperienced/narcissistic student being offended when I hinted that their idea wasn’t well thought out. (It happens.)

But it’s that recurring comment, once a year or so, that really resonates with me. As a journalist, isn’t my responsibility to pursue all angles, all stories, to see where they lead? Am I really shutting people down in my class, limiting the inputs of some students, perhaps stifling them? Are there ideas that, if I let them play out a little longer, would bring something of value to the discussion?

I wrestle with that, a lot. I tell my kids it’s not my job to teach, it’s my job to help them learn – and those are two distinctly different goals. Have I been smothering someone’s learning?

And is this something I’ve done elsewhere, believing there’s One Story to tell and that’s it? I … I fear it may be true.

That challenging comment up top? It hasn’t been anything earth shattering – my job is secure, my family is healthy. But I have been wrestling with some things and part of it gets to this One Story idea.

My childhood – which I admit I have totally romanticized and I’m okay with that – featured a lot of summer camping trips. We’d hook up our trailer in mid-June and disappear from Massachusetts for most of the summer, rolling in just before school started again. My memories of this are awesome – new places, new people, new things to learn, new things to experience.

It turns out that, while my brother and I have great memories of KOA Kampgrounds, my mother hated this. When I married eight years ago, I wanted the experience from my memories for my step kids. The story I’d told myself (and anyone else who would listen) was what I tried to recreate.

150605 yard 061In 2009, after a months-long search for the perfect camper, we stumbled into one at a great price. That photo to the left? That’s the space where it was parked for six years. Last week, we sold it.

It turned out the One Story I had of my youth, of how great time on the road was, didn’t fit the story of my family. Their needs and desires are different than mine may have been as a child. We didn’t use the camper at all in the last two years, it sat, covered, in the backyard, just in view from my office window. When we told the kids we were selling it, neither expressed any concern.

My One Story about childhood adventures doesn’t fit them.

And, intellectually, I’m okay with this.

So, back to journalism and teaching … there’s a story thread that weaves through my courses. It’s a journey, I have an endpoint and waypoints in mind when we start. There are lots of tangents, for sure, most of them triggered by students comments and queries – but there’s no AAA TripTik. Balancing when to let them wander down a path and when to point them back to the main trail is a delicate act.

A teacher is supposed to be the expert – the hired guide, the one who will get you somewhere and keep you safe. A professor is a little different – someone who will point you down the path but maybe not lead you so much, to give you a little more room to explore.

As a parent, it’s a similar structure – get them somewhere, keep them safe and give them some room to explore.

How does this all fit into journalism and why is it coming up today? The video below, a TED talk delivered in 2009 (right around the time we bought our camper, coincidentally) dives deeply into the Danger of a Single Story. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie talks about her journey from Nigeria to the United States and the effect of the one story perception.

A a journalist, journalism professor and parent, it’s a good reminder to look beyond the One Story.