Archive for category Professionalism

A Tale of Two Worlds

This week featured photojournalism-related news that seemed to come from two different realities. In many ways the issues and sentiments are the same — protection of privacy. But privacy is not an issue in either case. Both are about protection from criticism.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed this week a new law making it easier to sue media outlets that allegedly invade a celebrity’s privacy.

It seems our problem of making some citizens more equal than others persists. Why should Arnold and his friends be more protected from images than the rest of us? And what are they protecting? The treatment of the issue implies that celebrities (by what definition?) are being violently assaulted. Yet all the pictures usually show is a poorly dressed, anorexic or obese celeb shopping for accessory-dog food. They are not protecting their physical selves, just their well-crafted marketing image.

At the same time, new rules on journalists embedded with the military in Afghanistan prevent photographs of U.S. Soldiers killed in action. An image (linked above from News Photographer magazine) by Julie Jacobson seems to have reignited the old issue.

“Media have multiple ways to cover the war in Afghanistan and embedding is only one of the choices available. The press retains the option to report independently or as a media embed with military forces,” a Master Sgt. Clementson told the NPPA’s News Photographer magazine.

Access, where have you gone? I can’t imagine how one could be in the presence of battle without being embedded. Without those images, war coverage drifts toward “propaganda by omission.” And the price of war is hidden from the citizens who pay for it with money and lives.

Does this rule protect a soldier? The dignity of death? The family? Perhaps tangentially. But it unquestionably protects the military’s well-crafted marketing image.

I have little sympathy for celebrities, but I do have sympathy for soldiers and the risky, difficult job they perform. But, as it was once said of battlefield casualty photography (if you know the source of the quote, send it my way), images of a soldier’s death honor that death as the ultimate sacrifice.

Many argue that a block on such pictures is meant to protect the families of the victims. That is a worthy sympathy too. But that place is a funny one to draw such a line. If that holds true, should we not avoid photos of any casualty? Any disaster? Any death? Valuable coverage of the world would greatly suffer. We need to see to believe, and to understand the impact of our or others’ actions.

Two worlds under the control of marketing. In both the surface hides the reality beneath.

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Ten years after Columbine

Vast memorials at Robert F. Clement Park near the high school where 13 were killed last month still draw thousands of people moved by the tragedy. Here the curious and grieving pass the flower-covered truck of slain Columbine student John Tomlin.

Vast memorials at Robert F. Clement Park near the high school where 13 were killed on April 20, 1999, still drew thousands of people moved by the tragedy a month later. Here the curious and grieving pass the flower-covered truck of slain Columbine student John Tomlin.

A letter written to my students of the time, a couple weeks after the Columbine shootings:

May 4, 1999

Dear students,

Two weeks ago a horde descended upon Clement Park to cover the massacre at Columbine High School. There bereaved families and students found themselves face-to-face with more camera operators than I have seen anywhere, and that collision created a perfect laboratory for us to look at ourselves, the job we do and how the public reacts to our work.

Today was an interesting day for it seems to be the end of the initial media blitz. Monday tornadoes ravaged Oklahoma, killing an estimated 45 people. Off to the next disaster raced most of the out-of-towners, leaving Clement park to the curious visitors and shocked citizens that flock there daily.

Up through yesterday the public’s perception of the media had been steadily sliding downhill. The situations I’ll describe here are not the only reasons for the public disgust and distrust of the media. We’ve been building up public exhaustion with our behavior for years. The Columbine massacre just handily lays it all out before us.

The day this tragedy happened I raced out the door like all the other journalists in town and what I encountered near the scene of the shooting shook me. I spent that afternoon at an elementary school near Columbine where worried parents congregated in wait for their children. Their faces were a terrible sight. The radio and TV were reporting up to 25 dead, making the odds that their children had been injured or killed very real.

That’s a tough situation to photograph. Standing near someone that horrified and frightened makes my camera weigh a thousand pounds. People reacted to me in varying ways — some not noticing me at all, others seeming to understand why I was there. I was also scolded by one man who said, “get that camera out of my face.”

I waited a minute for him to cool down, and apologized to him.

Initially the media who were there acted as part the scene. I loaned my cell phone out to at least five parents or grandparents. I was constantly asked for updates, and I gave as much information as I could as graciously as possible. I handed out business cards, encouraging anyone to call if they had any questions at all. Later I did get a call from a pair of parents who when I last saw them on that day still hadn’t found their twin children. They thanked me for my concern and help at the scene, and happily told me their kids were safe.

But as the numbers of photographers increased, the separation between the subjects and the journalists grew. Crying children hid behind their friends and families. A few cursed the cameras. More photographers arrived, some greeting each other with back slaps and smiles. Some bragged about the “great pictures” they had gotten.

I stood and watched with the worried families. How callous that seems to someone in trouble — to see the media react to it as if it were just another excuse to exploit misery for ratings and contests and profit.

I know both sides of that story, though. I think the photographers there who did act that way were just blocking out the horror of the situation in a convenient way. Many of us do that after a few too many troubling scenes. We make the camera a block against reality and shoot pictures as if it were all a play laid out for us to photograph.

We in the media desperately need to realize that our subjects are watching us, too. We must behave in a sensitive manner around the grief-stricken. We need to show that we care and that we do this job because the public cares. We must be ambassadors.

At too many funerals I have seen photographers and videographers arrive in shorts and T-shirts as if they were at a baseball game. Being behind a camera does not mean we are separate from the scene. On the contrary, big equipment and tripods make us stand out like nothing else can.

Please be professionals. Dress for the situation. Wear a tie. Don’t march around with cigarettes dangling from your lips, or worse yet, with a huge dip of Skoal under your lip. If we expect the respect of our subjects, our viewers, and the public that grants us the rights on which we operate, we must be respectful to them.

Please never forget as you enter the working world of journalism that it is the First Amendment under which we operate. But free speech is not a right held too dear by much of the public. In their view, free speech is fine as long as it doesn’t speak badly about them. Free speech is dandy unless they find it offensive in any way.

The only example we need to see is the persistent attempts at a constitutional amendment against flag burning. Why do politicians brandish that idea about so often even if they don’t believe it would be constitutional? Because the public finds the burning of a flag deeply offensive even if it is free speech.

We must deal with our subjects honestly and fairly. We cannot be lazy with the facts. We must maintain the trust of the public we serve. As a journalist I am as afraid of suddenly being the subject of a news story (again) as I am afraid of an IRS audit. That isn’t because I have anything to hide or be ashamed of. Based on experiences on both sides of the act of journalism, I fear that the truth would not be properly portrayed. I fear that I would be a sound bite or quote delivered in a careless context.

On the second day of coverage of the Columbine story it was evident the community was already tired of the growing horde of journalists. At memorial services bands of parishioners began to form human walls even though the media were still being remarkably well-behaved at that point. The consequences of our voraciousness were becoming evident.

At Clement park, many mourners and groups of students were outnumbered by the media everywhere they went. The week wore on and anyone with any shaky connection to the event had been telephoned relentlessly, badgered at the door or offered large sums of money to appear on questionable TV shows.

I’ve heard of two disturbing incidents (surely there are more) — one in which one photographer laid on the ground in the middle of a huddle of crying Columbine students, blasting up at their bowed heads with a flash. In another tale, a photographer chases a disturbed, crying subject down the street, blasting away with a camera.

What must be the public perception of this behavior? Do they see our actions in the field as separate from the final product they see on the TV screen or in print? I think yes. Clement park is a wondrous, sprawling example of that. It is the media that has drawn all those people to send offerings from across the country, or to bring their children to lay flowers or teddy bears on the ever-expanding mounds.

The satellite trucks have made the area the epicenter of grief. We draw them with our images, but they are taken aback when our cameras flash in their tearing eyes. To the public our product is separate from our work.

It is unfortunate that the public misunderstands the concept of privacy. I have long wished that every citizen understood that when they are in a public place they don’t have “privacy.” But the public feels that the right to privacy is something more akin to “the right to be left alone.” This is the only way I can explain why people would flock to a place surrounded by satellite trucks to grieve, and be angry when a camera pops up in front of them.

Saturday an estimated 7,000 people crowded the west steps of the state capitol to protest the NRA’s annual meeting in Denver. Fewer journalists were on hand to cover the event, already more than a week after the shooting. A grieving Columbine father spoke, followed by a family who had lost a son in a shooting. During one father’s speech a counterprotestor was pushed to the ground in a scuffle not far the podium. Most of the photojournalists, all doing their job by capturing a potentially explosive situation, turned away for a few seconds to photograph police dragging the counterprotestor away.

The speaker bemoaned the press for “scrambling to photograph that,” rather than pay attention to him. The crowd erupted in a cheer that gave me a chill. None of the photographers had done anything less than their job in that case, but the giant crowd showed immediately how uncomfortable they were with our actions in general. And surely most of the crowd realizes that without media coverage of the rally, it would have no effect beyond their ranks. They needed us there.

Monday the students of Columbine High returned to classes at a nearby school. As Chatfield students left to make way for the Columbine kids, they passed the small row of journalists reporting from across the street. Insults were hurled from car windows by students who hadn’t even been involved in the incident. A small army of parents stood on the school’s side of the road to chase away any journalists who wished to cross. Another group gave out fliers to Columbine students advising them of their “rights with the press.”

We are shooting ourselves in the foot with our own behavior. Competition for ratings, or circulation, or publication fees makes many journalists forget about the consequences of their actions. Sensationalist coverage breeds more disgust, reduces the public trust and hurts us again.

A touching moment happens in a park full of journalists and the dog pile begins. A Current Affair makes more money when people watch its sensational coverage, and other TV outlets feel the need to follow suit in pursuit of profit. Freelance photographers trip over each other chasing tears, stake out offenders’ homes, and badger neighbors only on the odd chance that they’ll make a few extra bucks.

This profession is not about money nor about winning contests. Journalism is about telling stories — carefully and professionally. If what you do in journalism ever becomes about money, find another career that will make more money for you. If what you do in journalism ever becomes getting a picture or quote regardless of the effects on the innocent, find another career where you’re less likely to hurt someone.

This is not about money.

This is not about winning contests.

Causing pain or anger in the undeserving is not worth a picture or a sound bite with a news life of one day or less. Angering Pol Pot by brashly making a picture is one thing, angering and aggravating the innocent is another.

In the eyes of the media Columbine is now an old story. There are 45 new victims to cover in another state thanks to Mother Nature. Those journalists have raced off to that story leaving all the baggage of this one behind them, yet the families of the victims, their friends and classmates will be stuck with this story for the rest of their lives.

Please, as you enter the working world, think about what your subjects are seeing in you, and what they will remember about their experience with you after the flood lights have moved on. We need the support of the public to do our jobs well. We need the support of the public to guard our first amendment rights.

Journalism is a profession. Any field associated with that term bears a responsibility to the public — the medical profession, the legal profession, the education profession. From time to time we have the responsibility to expose the guilty with all our investigative talents. But we also have the responsibility to treat the innocent fairly and with careful, respectful consideration.

Let’s guard our professionalism. Know where that line falls.

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Picking Battles

Late last week a story from the U.K. revealed a point where photojournalism balances between public service, free speech, national security and intense journalism competition.

Robert Quick, the U.K.’s most powerful counter-terrorism officer, resigned after being photographed as he stepped from a car at 10 Downing Street, holding secret documents in plain sight.


Click above for NYT story… (Steve Back/European Pressphoto Agency)

Quick was holding plans for a major anti-terrorism operation. With high-resolution digital cameras, good lenses and quick shutters it was possible to zoom into the tiny print and read the document. Britain’s tabloids ran with the information.

My first reaction was dismay at their choice. Though it happened in public, and yes, Quick was a fool for not putting the papers back in their folder, revealing the plans could needlessly cost lives. Terrorists could escape to bomb a market or subway, all thanks to press freedom.

With every freedom comes responsibility. We in the press must understand what the results of revealing information may be.

But, like all stories, the complexities are thick.

First, in a competitive field, someone was bound to publish the information and perhaps the British press felt their hand was forced. Editors have always felt the need to be first and strongest with the news, even before circulations began to wane and competition for ad sales soared. And “citizen journalism” means photos and videos by people without training and without editors land immediately on the Web. The editors of these papers (some combative tabloids, some not) may have felt they had no choice.

The Evening Standard did inform the Metropolitan Police in advance that they would publish. The revelations forced British police to immediately undertake the operation, resulting in 12 arrests. The anti-terrorism plan was not completely thwarted.

Another complication is the relationship between the press and the Metropolitan Police Service in London, which is under fire for the apparent riot-police-clubbing of a 47-year-old newspaper vendor who died of a heart attack after his reported violent encounter with a riot cop. The department seems to be skirting a proper investigation of that death. They are also implicated in the shooting death of a turnstile-hopping Brazilian immigrant in the London subways in 2005.

The public and the press may have been gunning for Quick.

Relationships between journalists and the governments they hope to keep in check are always strained. Here this was with Bush and will be with Obama. But both sides could stand to watch themselves.

If the British media and their citizen counterparts were seizing an opportunity to take down an official they found to be in their way, they succeeded. But will it help their relations with the Metropolitan Police Service? Force better internal investigations? Check the behavior of trigger- and baton-happy cops?

Odds are low. My bet is that police tape and photo positions will move further back away from subjects, access will become more limited. And rather than officials seeing the truth that Quick was an idiot for stepping into public unprepared, they will simply blame the press for Quick’s quick end.

Rather than taking down Robert Quick by revealing a flub that was only possible because of the cameras present, he would have been better forced into resignation by revealing department wrongdoing. We are a better check on the system when we “gotcha” with meaningful material.

We need to pick our battles very carefully.

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