Category Journalism

Visualizing Autism

I am going to put this right up front – I think Craig Walker may be one of the most important photojournalists of our time.

He won earned two Pulitzer Prizes while at the Denver Post, one for a story on a kid joining the Army and a second on a Marine coming back from war. This week, the Boston Globe published Raising Connor, the story of a 13 year old boy with autism.

Walker invested the time, invested the energy, invested the compassion that this story needed. It is a shining example of what Roger May refers to as heartwork.

Not noted in the story, but due acknowledgment, are the editors who gave Walker the ability to make this story happen. It is stories like this that give us a true insight into what is happening in our communities, that let us both see and feel.

Last night, I sent another group of visual journalists out into the world at the University of Georgia commencement ceremony. We talk about stories that illuminate, educate and resonate – this story is what I mean by that.

Seeing the South

I have a couple of friends, photojournalists with common but wide backgrounds, and we keep talking about doing some kind of project together. A road trip, an essay, a deep exploration of a place.

But we just keep talking about it, mostly because that’s all we have time for. And seeing pieces like this Andrew Moore gallery on the Bitter Southerner just makes me want to go even more.

Now that’s great storytelling.

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.

They Exist

Anderson Cooper interviewed the artist known as JR for 60 Minutes and it’s worth 14 minutes of your time. It’s not journalism, it’s art, but it’s interesting how he thinks about his transition from being a graffiti artist to doing these photo installations.

If you have a few more minutes, after the regular segment airs there’s an Overtime segment with a few surprises in it.

(Thanks to Janie Bohlmann for the link.)

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.)

A Narrow Slice if History

Hondros, a film about the late photojournalist Chris Hondros, is now open in select cities. Producer Greg Campbell, a friend of his, spoke with Christopher Booker for PBS News Hour.

Because I think Chris knew very well that there were also not a lot of happy endings after he snapped the shutter on his camera. And I’ve heard him say several times. That’s as much as journalists and photographers are recording history, it’s maybe more accurate to just say that they’re recording a very narrow slice of history. And there are usually some of the most traumatic events of a person’s life and I think Chris really wanted to follow up with stories to try to present a wider picture of what what occurred.

When Assisting Means Employed

David Walker at Photo District News has taken a look at several legal issues related to large-scale photo shoots, ones where “assistants” are routinely hired to help with the production.

The common industry term “assistants” means something different in New York and California. Most of us think of assistants as independent contractors, paid a flat rate to work on a shoot. In two states, it means they are employees and have to be paid at the end of the day, with taxes taken out and have a workers’ comp and unemployment insurance in place.

That is a game changer for a lot of budgets. This is worth a close read.

Storytelling Lessons

My friend Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute has broken down a couple of Super Bowl commercials to help us become better storytellers.

Worth clicking through for the other ad breakdown.

“I am not useful for my camera if I die.”

Karam Shoumali told the story of Syrian photojournalist Hosam Katan on The New York Times’ Lens blog a few months back, it’s worth reading to understand how Syrian journalists have covered and been affected by the war there.