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Shocker: News Photography Gets Worse Without Actual News Photographers

Shocker: News Photography Gets Worse Without Actual News Photographers

It’s been a rough time for photojournalists, with many large metro newspapers laying off entire photo staffs. Quality is bound to take a hit, but does the public notice? A new study says that they do.

Researchers Tara Mortensen and Peter Gade, in a study published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, analyzed photographs from the Middletown (N.Y.) Times Herald-Record pre- and post-layoff of the photo staff in 2013. From this set of photographs, 488 were identified as taken by a professional and 409 were not. These photos were then classified on a scale devised by Ken Kobré, a professor who wrote the seminal photojournalism text, "Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach." The scale rated photos as informational, graphically appealing, emotionally appealing, and intimate.

Generally informational photos point the camera in the right direction of events that are happening, but aren't very creative or graphically appealing. The study found that about 80 percent of the time, nonprofessional photographers were taking these types of shots, compared to just under 50 percent of the time for professional photographers, who leaned more heavily on the other three categories of photography that generally provided for better photos. It was also noted that professional photos provided more action and conflict than nonprofessional photos.

It’s something you see playing out on the local level every day. While reporters are good at what they do (words), photographers are specialists at what they do (photos), and to prioritize one over the other results in lesser news coverage overall. Bean counters at newspapers may not feel the effects right away, but as less professional photos appear day after day, a publication’s credibility drops.

You can check out a synopsis of the study over at the American Press Institute.

What do you think about the decline of professional news photography? Sound off in the comments below.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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I don't know, it's like companies (publication/media) always think that the photography department are the most expandable ones. It take years to learn everything about the field. Plus there's the expertise that you know already what your publication wants.

Freelancers can do a good job, but you won't expect them to miraculously take photos the same way a regular staff photographer does.
And now, here comes the people with smartphones. Though smartphones are now better than ever, the equipment is still limiting like variety of lenses, better overall image quality, image noise, & fragility.

I think photographers / photojournalists are being undervalued as everyone today is a "photographer". I hope companies will realize that there was a good reason why you hired one. Not because they simply take photos, but they know what they're doing.

The study was about professionals versus non-professionals, not staff photographers versus freelance photographers. There are a lot of freelance photojournalists who used to be employed by a media outlet and continue to shoot freelance for a variety of outlets. But being a freelance photographer doesn't mean you're not professional, not shooting great work and not working just as hard as someone getting a salary.

The issue is really about media outlets that are struggling to make a profit and are looking for ways to cut corners and still turn out an acceptable product. They give their reporters iPhones or an entry-level DSLR and have them working double duty. But this is happening in broadcast media too with reporters being a one-man band, going out solo to produce a story by shooting & editing it themselves.

Unless a print media outlet has an aggressive online presence, they are going to struggle against social media. A recent Pew Research study showed that print media fell 4% from 2016 and more people are getting their news from social media than from print media.

I'm not too fussed. Every news outlet is tasked with producing stories that the target audience will want to follow. This model doesn't naturally lend itself to truth-telling, although sometimes truth telling is a happy by-product.

So I prefer to go to the net for primary sources anyway, rather than rely on the professional story tellers, no matter which communication technique the professional story tellers use.

What are these primary sources you rely on?

It very much depends on the issue. It's amazing what you can find as you start searching the net. It's also fascinating to note what is very difficult to find direct links to.

TBH I never look at newspapers or media outlets for the photos anymore -- I just want the "facts" and news story. I look to social media (mainly Instagram) for photos; I prefer seeing photojournalistic images from non-professionals as it maintains a sense of rawness and authenticity.

I think you are confusing style with substance. I have been influenced by a number of photojournalists and each has their own style. I do not expect people who have never been tasked with shooting on a regular basis to become photojournalists overnight. If the photos that came out after the Chicago Tribune dumped their photo staff are any indication of the quality of reporters shooting, they should hire their photo staff back.

How does a non-professional news photographer shoot photos that by your opinion are better than those of professionals? And Instagram isn't a news source. While publications may link content to Instagram, the unfortunate reality is that many of the people who use Instagram have short attention spans. You are not going to link ten photos and a thousand word story to Instagram. It won't work because people simply won't bother with it.

In the past the photojournalist worked with the reporter in putting the story together, they were storytellers, not simply there to take an aesthetic picture.

You want a qualified and correctly trained electrician to work on the wiring of your house and you want certified and experienced teacher to teach your kids in school but you want a amateur without experience and in no way verified qualifications to tell you what is going on in the world around you. No wonder fake news is making headway in this world where nerve and rawness is considered above ethics and qualifications. And who said that the net is not a media news outlet and these primary sources are mainly a hotchpotch of opinions and wishful thinking with very little verifiable "reality" behind it or in worse cases pure lies or propaganda.

Whether the information comes from a qualified professional story teller or just someone off the street, you'll only hear the truth if the person providing the information is honest. Whether a person is honest or not is a result of their character, not their qualifications.

The professional story teller always has an explicit barrow to push, because they're paid to tell stories that will be popular to digest by the target audience.

This naturally introduces a temptation for a journalist to bend, stretch, obscure or simply create truth. At least the average person on the street is less likely to be pushing that barrow, simply because their livelihood usually doesn't depend on it.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Where is your proof Simon?

Proof that journalists are paid by the publishers, or that publications have target audiences? There is nothing extraordinary in either claim, Robert.

Stop trolling and provide your proof. "This naturally introduces a temptation for a journalist to bend, stretch, obscure or simply create truth. At least the average person on the street is less likely to be pushing that barrow, simply because their livelihood usually doesn't depend on it."

If you evidence of that, show it and not simply claim it.

It's basic logic, Robert, based on the fact that journalists are paid to generate stories, by publishers who have a target audience. The average person on the street isn't. If you don't get it, then I can't help you.

Actually, it's rather easy to find proof that some journalists have agendas and are willing to bend the truth. Just watch the major publications like the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, etc for their retractions due to stories that were lacking facts or included false facts or statements.

To prove my assertion, all I had to do was 'Bing' the following: Latest retraction from the New York Times. You want proof that journalism isn't what it used to be?


And don't start with the Trump stuff. This was the very first hit on Bing for the search parameters that I typed in. If it was about Joe **** the Rag Man, that's what I would have linked to.

The fact that these papers actually publish retractions demonstrates their level of professionalism. Yes, mistakes are made, but they are typically acknowledged and corrected. When have you ever seen a retraction or admission of error from InfoWars or other "alternative" news sources?

Of course there's a big difference between editorial and news reporting. Editorials represent opinions on and interpretations of current events (and typically reflect the political leanings of the editorial board), whereas news articles should be unbiased and objective presentations based on facts (regardless of the political bent of the board/owners, etc).

You've painted an idealized picture of what a journalist should be, but unfortunately many fall short of that. It's not a surprise that media outlets have agendas and journalists are instructed to follow that agenda. This is beyond Trump and his calls of "fake news". I saw this happen over 4 years ago in Ferguson. What the media was showing in Ferguson wasn't the whole story and that's the problem. So many times we're not told the whole story. We're only told a side that matches the media's agenda. Everything else is discarded.

Lee Christiansen, I think you're viewing journalism through rose tinted glasses. It would be great if journalism was all the things you mentioned, but unfortunately, too often journalists' work falls way short. Usually, the system they work within doesn't afford them the luxury of all the wonderful actions you attribute to them.

I worked in local government for years, and read a lot of journalists' stories about issues I personally knew about. Of the hundreds of articles I read, only one journalist was ever accurate on any article.

That's great if you know many journalists or have worked with them a lot, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, not whether you're friends with the cook.

I prefer to trust neither the opinions of journalists nor the opinions of the general public. Instead, I prefer to find primary sources whenever possible, and form my own opinions.

No, "honesty" may be nice, but ACCURACY is better.

If only we commonly saw either.

It makes sense to do away with professional photographers, they have done away with professional writers a long time ago. It’s very hard to find a decent journalist.
It sickens me when I start reading an article then words are misspelled, sentences and paragraphs are not grammatically correct. I am no Shakespeare, but I also do not get paid to publish an article for consumption.
So sad it has come to this.

The 80-20 rule applies for all time where even before the Internet and digital photography, 80% of what was published was cheap, and only 20% was valuable,

No different today, and not just by source, because even supposedly valuable high quality sources with reputations for integrity produce 80% crap versus 20% valuable stuff.

Good article. This is precisely why I don’t read newspapers; I don’t trust their opinions anymore, they are simple churning anything out. You might not say, hey that’s not a professional photo, but you can feel it, you can feel their lack of attention to the story, and if they don’t care, why should you, right?

You have to develop your own BS filter, because newspapers and the web are no different in their presentation of value and their need for improvement.

Yes, it's a lot of work to take responsibility for what we learn and believe, and no "news" source ever had superior capabilities over ourselves for that.

True words: if they don’t care, why should a reader. I wish publishers realized this.

It's my guess but they also laid off reporters. Judging by the stories published on the internet.

One aspect of photojournalism that still requires skill is the action sports genre. But even there, it depends on the quality that the publisher requires that determines the quality of shooter that provides the images. There's a reason why the sidelines or the photographer pits are populated by shooters with 2 or 3 bodies and lenses the size of mini bazookas. This ain't smartphone territory. ;-)


-- seeing for yourself,


-- seeing for others,

... are conflicting activities.

A reporter puts down the camera so that they can witness for themselves what's going on.

A photographer keeps rolling and shooting regardless, knowing that getting the picture is more important than their own understanding at the moment.

You can see this in on Internet videos where as soon as something surprising happens, the ( amateur ) videographer drops the camera to find out for themselves what just happened, and we the watchers miss the whole thing.

Why not get rid of the reporters and have the photographers just video with sound, then transcribe the video for print editions?

Nobody reads anymore, we're all watchers anyway.

Forgive me for posting without reading through all the comments already posted lol. I was a freelance (yes professional) photographer for my local media giant. They made major cuts in staff and yes, many of us freelancers as well. The public has noticed for sure. Not just the quality or (impact) of the images that are taken and used now, but on the local level, they're not really actually covering things. There could be a silver lining here somewhere. I believe the demand will come back. Anyone who did this work in a smaller market knows the pay is on par with taking Santa photos at the mall, maybe when the cycle comes back around, we'll be positioned a bit better to leverage for better rates! Probably not (I know), but one can dream LOL!

I freelance for a travel mag that is known for its photo content. And yet they pay just $100 an assignment. The only way I can make it worth my time is to also write the article, for which they pay an additional $250. As a result most good freelancers won’t shoot for them and they have to rely on a couple of staffers.