Category Ethics & Legal

Know Your Sources, Deeply

Andrew W. Lehren, Emily R. Siegel and Merritt Enright at NBC News broke a story this week about the First Lady receiving royalty payments that may have come from news outlets … without them knowing it.

Many of the photographs in the Getty Images archive are from a photographer who seems to have an interesting relationship with the Trump family. Regine Mahaux’s images appear to have required model royalties associated with them, meaning that news organizations (of which NBC News found several) were paying the First Lady when they published images of her. They are also reporting that the images have restrictions to be only used for positive news stories.

News organizations have a responsibility to understand where all of the information they publish comes from, which means they may have to investigate all of the agencies from which they draw images.

Of course, having staff photojournalists and your own archive can mitigate this problem – and I do mean mitigate, not eliminate. No organization will ever be able to create and control every image they need to publish.

(Thanks to Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute for the lead on this.)

Native Photographers

Who best can tell a story – an impartial outsider or someone with a deep connection? It’s a perennial question amongst journalists.

The outsider may have no bias but also may lack a depth of understanding. The insider may understand all the issues at hand but could also have been deeply affected by them.

Over at The New York Times, James Estrin looks at the mission of Natives Photograph, a database of Native American photographers.

The Hypocrisy of a Corporate Mandate Urging Independence

By now, you’ve seen the video montage that Deadspin created, with anchors from dozens of Sinclair Broadcasting Group stations reading the same corporate-issued script. You’ve seen the response from media associations like the National Press Photographers Association (and seen the consequences of that statement), you’ve read the analysis from folks like Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a copy of the script edited to include local references to station KOMO. Some comments:

“Hi, I’m(A) ____________, and I’m (B) _________________…
(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our Northwest communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that KOMO News produces.

By using news time for what is a promo or “public service announcement,” you’re cutting into your service to the community.

(A) But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.

Quality journalism dictates that you identify the source of your information. Neither the source of this script nor evidence of the “troubling trend” are provided.

(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.

Did KOMO review the information this report is based on? Allegedly, Sinclair did a survey – did anyone at KOMO look at the results? Did they look at the methodology? Did they talk to a survey expert about the sample size and composition? Did they ask about any implicit bias in the question structures?

(A) Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’…This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.

When one media organization requires all of their stations to run compulsory commentary, with out identifying its corporate source, isn’t that using, “their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda?”

(B) At KOMO it’s our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left nor right.’ Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.

“Factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility” – that’s a powerful and true statement. But when you do not identify the words coming out of your mouth as being someone else’s, when you do not verify the data upon which those words are based and when you do not identify that these are coming from outside your newsroom, outside your news station and outside your community, you lose that credibility that you claim to need.

(A) But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us by going to KOMOnews.com and clicking on CONTENT CONCERNS. We value your comments. We will respond back to you.
(B) We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual… We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day.
Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback”

This is the soft close, this is the, “we’re listening to you but not telling you all we know” finish to make the audience feel good.

Broadcast stations are considered public trustees – because they use airwaves that are owned by all of us, there are certain standards they need to meet, certain obligations they need to fill. As more and more are owned by large corporations (Sinclair currently owns 193 television stations and is in discussions to purchase 40 more), there is a conflict between the public trustee role and the demands of corporate cultures.

Sinclair didn’t cross any legal lines here, but an ethical one has been bridged. Local news organizations should be reflective of and responsible to their local communities. The benefits of corporate ownership should be in taking advantage of scale for business purposes, not in taking advantage of scale to push a political agenda that may not be reflective of the communities.

Having local anchors read a corporate-provided script decrying that, “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda” is the very epitome of hypocrisy and erodes any credibility those news organizations may have.

So what do we do? As an educator, I advise my students to research the entities that are offering internships and jobs beyond just the basic info of location, market share or pay scales. They need to do a deep dive into the newsroom, the local organization and the corporate philosophy.

More so on the broadcast side than on the print side, journalists may have to sign contracts that stipulate everything from how much they’ll be paid to how they can – or cannot – move-on or quit.

I ask my students to look deeply inside themselves, to see if this corporation is a company they would be proud to represent because it will be their name, their likeness, that will be the public face of that company.

A good working environment and culture will go a very long way to make you both happy and successful. Salary alone doesn’t dictate job satisfaction.

I surround myself with journalists, journalism students and journalism educators by choice because we share a common ethical framework and a deep desire to help our local communities, to ask questions in our local communities and to seek answers in our local communities. I appreciate that working for the University of Georgia gives me access to certain benefits because of the scale of this operation but I also appreciate that I am given the ability to work with and react to my immediate constituents – the students and, by extension, the citizens of the state.

Corporate ownership of news organizations is not inherently evil, corporate dictates that do not reflect local priorities is, though. As a public trustee it is incumbent upon corporate owners to allow local operations to reflect the values and needs of those local consumers.

If they don’t, they are participating in yet another form of propaganda designed to control what people think.

The Ethics of Self-assigned Work

In a piece for the Poynter Institute from 2017, Kainaz Amaria talks about the moment she realized she wasn’t going to be a conflict photographer and the underrepresentation of women in photojournalism.

But there’s one line in there, one line that I wish every student and young professional would pay attention to:

It’s that I couldn’t justify asking someone to tell their story if I wasn’t sure I had an outlet to publish in.

Nearly every time there’s a major news event, I start to hear rumblings from students and young professionals across the country – let’s go to (insert location of major news event here), it’ll be great for our portfolios.

And that’s when my stomach churns – it’s the lowest level of humanity that wants to profit off of someone else’s plight in life.

I understand the need to tell stories, the need to build your portfolio, the belief that you need major news events in your book to be considered a “real” photojournalist. But here’s the thing – any decent editor is going to look at your work and ask why you made those images. And if your answer isn’t about helping your community understand, then what you’re showing is not journalism. It’s just photography.

And it’s photography that’s been done at the expense of someone else.

Photojournalism is about informing an audience, it is about advancing the understanding of an event or issue, it is about raising and answering questions about the human condition. It is not about moments of drama or great light or clean backgrounds – that’s photography.

If you get that urge to pile in a car and go somewhere just because there’s news, ask yourself who you’re telling that story to. Without knowing and understanding who you are making images for, you’re not doing journalism.

Seeing Where You Are

For every photographer who has ever said they need to travel somewhere to make better images, for every journalist who has driven to work with windows up and music playing, you must read this piece by Neeta Satam on how to see stories ethically.

Next week, students in our Documentary Photojournalism course will head a little south for our 13th Annual Woodall Weekend Workshop, three days in one rural community telling its story. They will focus in on one project, working with ten professionals acting as editors, coaches and mentors.

There is nothing unique or special about the communities we choose for them to cover, they are everyday places full of everyday happenings – stories we need to see to understand who we are.

These are the stories of our backyard.

(Thanks to Sean Elliot for the link.)

Automating the Copyright Infringement Search

Steven Melendez at FastCompany has an interesting piece up on two companies – Copypants and Pixsy – that are automating the search for copyright infringements online.

The technology (similar to Google’s and TinEye’s reverse image search) has the potential to be a powerful way to control how our images are used. The danger comes from how the process moves forward after finding a possible infringement – overly aggressive law firms could spur rollbacks of copyright protections in a worst-case scenario.

Now, if there were a way to get hosting platforms to tie into a reverse image search with the Copyright Office to stop the images from even getting posted, that could be a game changer – getting more people to register AND making potential infringers aware of what they are doing.

(Thanks to John Harrington for the link.)

The Year in Pictures, Then and Now

Allen Murabayashi compares The New York Times’ 2008 and 2017 Year in Pictures presentations over at the PhotoShelter blog.

The differences in technical quality and how images are toned are substantial. The evolution of digital cameras I seen through greater resolution, dynamic range and low light sensitivity, but the way photographers are handling post-processing is really evident. Tools that were not available a decade ago now have a significant impact on the look of news photographs.

On Why Journalists Need Access

The Washington Post’s David Nakamura takes a look at the photo(s) posted by The New York Times’ Doug Mills of the presidents visit to Manila.

There is a lot to unpack here.

Avedon and Civil Rights

Interesting look at the way Richard Avedon was trying to get segments of the publishing industry to move forward during the Civil Rights era by Philip Gefter for The New York Times.

Knowing Your Sources Matters

Every journalism course will teach you the same thing – know who your source is and why they are talking to you. In today’s wired world, that same lesson needs to apply to photo editors as Jan A. Nicolas reports at PetaPixel, a fake war photographer (using stolen and modified images) manages to get work published all over the world.

This photographer doesn’t exist, yet had a robust online portfolio and publication links.

So what do we learn from this? Know your sources. Don’t assume that the vetting process others have used is solid – the Wall Street Journal was duped here, as was the BBC. Because neither of them put the effort into verifying the images or the person allegedly behind them.

So who suffers here? The photographers whose work was stolen and the audience who viewed that work are at the ends of that list. But right in the middle, it’s the news organizations who published this work – it is their credibility that has been eroded.

And, at the end of the day, the only thing we as journalists have is credibility.