Why photojournalists matter

It’s a story I’ve been talking about in class lately, but one that bears repeating, nonetheless. Especially after something like this happens in the visual journalism community:

From the Standard-Examiner (www.standard.net): A composite photo illustration by reader James Parks that appeared in the Standard-Examiner's print and online additions: The trains depicted in the photos actually passed 10 minutes apart, but through Photoshop were combined (unbeknownst to the paper's photo editor) into this composite.

From the Standard-Examiner (www.standard.net): A composite photo illustration by reader James Parks that appeared in the Standard-Examiner's print and online additions: The trains depicted in the photos actually passed 10 minutes apart, but through Photoshop were combined (unbeknownst to the paper's photo editor) into this composite.

CNN layoffs

Before I get into that, a little background on the industry upheaval in terms of photojournalism.

In early November, CNN’s Senior Vice President sent a memo that indicated dozens of photojournalists and editors would be “departing” (read: laid off) from the company.

The reason? iReporters (members of the public who submit photos for free to CNN’s site) were doing the heavy lifting of contributing pictures, and so the staffers’ efforts were no longer needed.

Sounds ridiculous? Don’t believe me? Check out the memo directly from the horse’s mouth, posted here on CNN’s site:

For the past three years, we have been analyzing our work process across Image + Sound, both in the field and in our editing and production areas.

Our goal has been to make sure we have the right resources in the right places to meet the demands of all of our programs. Technology investments in our newsrooms now allow more desk-top editing and publishing for broadcast and online. This evolution allows more people in more places to edit and publish than ever before. As a result of these technology and workflow changes, CNN is reducing the number of media editors in our work force in Atlanta. CNN Image + Sound will continue with high end craft editing that has positive impact on our networks and platforms.

We also spent a great deal of time analyzing how we utilize and deploy photojournalists across all of our locations in the U.S. We looked at the evolution of daytime and evening line-ups. We analyzed how stories are assigned and more importantly the ratio of stories assigned that actually make it on to our networks or platforms. We know that we have to sharpen our focus on stories assigned to ensure that this great work gets on air. We looked at production demands, down time, and international deployments. We looked at the impact of user-generated content and social media, CNN iReporters and of course our affiliate contributions in breaking news. Consumer and pro-sumer technologies are simpler and more accessible. Small cameras are now high broadcast quality. More of this technology is in the hands of more people. After completing this analysis, CNN determined that some photojournalists will be departing the company.

We cannot begin to thank these individuals enough for their service to CNN. They leave with our respect and our sincere best wishes.

Now that we have completed this three-year review, we believe that we have the right resources in the right places and the proper staffing at Image + Sound, and that the unit is well-positioned to have an even more positive impact on our networks and platforms.


Right. What Mr. Womack doesn’t seem to understand is that last part of the word “photojournalist” – it’s “journalist.”

I have a 5-year-old niece, who is actually quite handy with a camera, but that doesn’t mean she can do the job of a trained photojournalist. Let her loose with a couple of photo filters and editing apps on my iPad, and she goes crazy.

So, too, do some readers who submit photos to news organizations. The above example comes from the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah. A reader submitted photo depicted a beautiful, but impossible shot of two generations of trains passing adjacent tracks at the same time. As it turns out, the photo was actually a Photoshop composite of two photos taken ten minutes apart – the finished product depicted a moment that never actually happened.

It’s hard to determine motive when someone doctors a news photo. In the case of the dueling trains, was it dishonesty, or honest ignorance about the journalism part of the whole photojournalis endeavor? Does the Standard-Examiner have a reader photo “staff” full of Brian Walskis, Adnan Hajjs and Allan Detrichs? With reader submissions, you can’t ever truly be sure. The photographer of the trains, James Parks, was so good with his editing, he fooled a photo editor that even checked the photo for edits on the computer.

The public at large can’t be expected to follow photojournalism ethics guidelines because they don’t necessarily know or care about them. And relying on the public at large for news coverage is a dangerous precedent to set. Standard-Examiner editor Andy Howell, who wrote a column in response to the whole debacle, summed it all up with this point: “James assures me that if we had asked him if the image was Photoshopped, he would have told us. Our role in policing content could be as simple as asking the right questions.”

Wouldn’t it be easier to keep your photojournalists in place so you don’t have to ask each contributor if they’re altering images?

The iReports Bandwagon

When “citizen journalism” was a fairly new trend at newspapers in the mid-2000s, I was 100 percent on board, but as a way to augment news coverage by actual journalists, not replace it. The message CNN is sending here is that anyone can be a journalist without any training or ethical grounding. Perhaps the brain surgery industry could follow the same model, turning the reins over to anyone who happens to own a scalpel. Or a rusty spoon. Call it “citizen surgery.”

Not that the two professions are the same, but I don’t pass myself off as a professional in fields I haven’t trained in.

Colbert sounds off on CNN’s move

I can go on about this topic all day, but I’ll leave it to Stephen Colbert, who sums up why this is a bad idea quite well:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Stephen Colbert’s meReporters
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

So, Womack: Think long and hard about whether you want to replace trained journalists with readers that aren’t.

2 thoughts on “Why photojournalists matter

  1. One of our students who spent a lot of time at Zuccotti Park this fall also spent a lot of time tracking coverage by CNN iReporters. She was horrified by the amount of iReportage that was downright false. If CNN further integrates its professional journalism with iReports, will news consumers understand the difference? Or will the CNN “brand” be tarnished as more stories of deception and mistakes emerge?

    • Wow, did she publish this information somewhere? Would be a real eye opener to share with folks.

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