Thursday, May 24, 2012

Legitimacy of Social Media in Journalism

"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 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."
From a CNN staff memo, citing reasons for massive layoffs, 2011 

Image Credit here; T-shirt tribute after  Katrina.
This week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune announced that they were severely cutting back their print edition to three days a week, effectively eliminating daily print newspaper service for the city.  Although other newspapers have been doing the same since the digital revolution, this is the first major American city to face the prospect of their direct news sources being available solely on the Internet.

Occurrences like these bring about legitimate questions, such as the impact on education, news dissemination to the poor, and further cultural detachment from the local environs.  The American community's ties and access to the Internet have never before seemed so important, in an era when, for example, election outcomes can be determined by the percentage of eligible voting adults who own smartphones.

Last week, we analyzed the rising use of iPhones for "serious" photography, and there is no type of photography more "serious" than photojournalism.  The debate has been raging, quietly, but there is a strong environment of polarity in this debate: people either love it or hate it.  

The increasing use of social media around the world has put further pressure on photojournalists, whose numbers (in terms of gainful employment) have seen a drastic decline in recent years.  In December of 2011, CNN laid off almost its entire photography crew.  As more and more common citizens contribute to global digital journalism with their own pictures, professionals have seen themselves hard pressed to make a successful argument towards their usefulness.  The term "citizen journalist," is a catch-all term, which has existed for years, used to describe the local, first-person account of a newsworthy story by an untrained civilian.  These citizen journalists, armed with web-ready mobile phones, are the new wave of visual newsmen, and a bane on the existence of professionals.

Image credit here, © Damon Winter
While most career photojournalists bemoan the death of their rubric, some, like Damon Winter of the New York Times, see a window of creative opportunity, and have taken it to task.  His portfolio, "A Grunt's Life," won an award from Picture of the Year.  He is part of the derring-do new chorus of photographers, eschewing the pomp and circumstance of big cameras for the emotional pop and intimacy of "instant" formats.  Even famed photojournalists, like James Nachtwey (today's generation's Capa), experiment with smaller formats in their spare time, and one must wonder how long it will be before they shed the heavy Victorian shroud of "seriousness," and embrace the possibilities of mobile "photography."

If we were to condense the unbreakable parameters of photojournalism, we would probably define a true photojournalistic photo as: un-retouched (or "raw"), well-composed, and un-biased.  I believe that the public would like to think that we only truly have control over one of these parameters, but in truth the journalist also coherently chooses what he wants to photograph, which makes it biased towards their own aesthetic code, and "un-retouched" is really one big hippocratic ideal, because unless the photographer is plugging in his shutter speed and aperture at exactly the level of what the human eye sees, in those conditions, the effect is that the scene is ultimately "altered" and "touched up."

Damon Winter writes about this fact beautifully:
"People have covered war with plastic toy cameras. Most recently, Erin Trieb in Afghanistan. David Burnett used the tilt of his large format cameras to render major sporting events into miniature dioramas. Paolo Pellegrin creates exquisite black-and-white images of major news events around the world that often more closely resemble paintings than photographs, using the same digital camera we all use. Each photographer uses a technique or tool that helps him or her to best tell the stories and all of their work has been acknowledged and celebrated.  None of these techniques are grounded on the idea of visual accuracy but they are effectively used to tell stories, convey ideas and to enlighten, which is the real heart of our work."
Arguably, in working with mobile phones, and iPhones in particular, the un-nuanced parameters of photojournalism are greatly enhanced: applications like Hipstamatic, for example, do not have integrated editing controls (not even cropping, which is popular tool for photojournalists, and a great reason for their harping by critics), and are only "modified" by internal filters which apply lighting, grain and vignetting effects at random.  These photographs can also be "instant" story-tellers, by their inate digital properties that allow them to be uploaded to the Internet immediately.  Is it perhaps this capability that most unnerves critics of the genre?  Is it because the importance is no longer on aesthetic, but on accuracy and timeliness?

If so, we are only barely now embarking on a tremendous watershed moment.  Perhaps what will be shed are the pounds of heavy equipment required these days for visual reporting.  It would probably be a welcome change for photojournalists if their only equipment during travel and their stay in less-than-pleasant accommodations in war-torn places was a teeny little gadget that fit in the back pocket of their cargo pants.  In the end, the debate over whether who the best and most sought-out photojournalist might not hinge on their talent, but on the speed of their Internet satellite connection.

For more reading on this subject, the following articles might be of interest:,0

No comments:

Post a Comment