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.

Log in or register to post comments

33 Comments

Fritz Asuro's picture

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.

stevepellegrino's picture

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.

Simon Patterson's picture

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.

Scott Haddow's picture

What are these primary sources you rely on?

Simon Patterson's picture

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.

user-165452's picture

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.

Simon Patterson's picture

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?

Simon Patterson's picture

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.

Simon Patterson's picture

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.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Journalists are paid to FIND stories, not to generate them.

A professional journalist is paid to take the time to research and discover the story behind the story, which gives us integrity and fact checking.

But a member of the opinion is no way restricted in this way. They can have a story based on opinion, 3rd hand knowledge, or what they feel should be the story to suit their own perspective. They have not the time to research, they don't have the means to investigate, they are not under pressure or regulation to dig for the truth.

A good journalist will know the value of a story is in the facts that support it. A story without substance is no story, so these get left behind in favour of unearthing something with value.

Who would I trust to tell me something...? Someone who "knows" nothing but has an opinion, or someone who has years' experience digging to find the facts.

Sometimes just because something has an institution behind it, doesn't make it false.

And just because money exchanges hand, doesn't reduce validity.

I fear there is too much conspiracy theory going on when we assume the worst in things we just assume about. I'd ask Simon how many journalists he knows very very well. I'd ask how many years he has spent working in that environment so he can directly relate to exactly what happens behind the scenes and I'd ask for exact and specific examples where public reporting was proven more factual than professional reporting.

Without this knowledge and experience and fact - I fear Simon is one of the public with an opinion, but selling it as fact without substance to back it up, and there I would refer to my earlier statements.

It is a dangerous path to make sweeping statements of which we have no knowledge.

David Pavlich's picture

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?

https://medium.com/@caityjohnstone/new-york-times-forced-to-retract-long...

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.

Scott Haddow's picture

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).

stevepellegrino's picture

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.

Simon Patterson's picture

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.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Well as opposed to just reading news stories, I've actually worked directly in news at the pointy end. At no time did I ever see a story being manufactured.

There will always be bad eggs of course, but overall I prefer to trust trained journalists who are paid to spend time researching than public who just have opinions.

Simon Patterson's picture

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.
.

Simon Patterson's picture

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.
.

user-165452's picture

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.
.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

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.

David Pavlich's picture

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. ;-)

More comments