Credibility and trust: A project to prove value of strong photojournalism

Every day, you swim through a sea of visual junk on the internet — selfies and mug shots and stock photos that could easily be interchangeable.

Then, you come across a photo that resonates. It’s a moment captured with rare perspective. Maybe it’s a video explaining something you didn’t know about your community—or a photo story that introduces you to a new neighbor or a new viewpoint or different approach to life. That’s photojournalism.

Visual decisions are made for publication all the time, though many newsroom staffs have been stripped to the bone. In fact, the visual decisions are more complex than ever, with stories doled out on lots of devices and platforms. Some newsrooms have eliminated entire photo departments. How do images get into publication, when the editor, photographer, reporter and designer might all be the same person?

“We need to outline good processes for telling visual stories,” said Akili Ramsess, director of the National Press Photographers Association, “My idea would be how to help the people left in newsrooms determine what skills are needed for strong photojournalism.”

Ramsess is my partner on this project for RJI. She called me earlier this year to propose a collaboration on the importance of photojournalism. We’re drawing on a team of willing volunteers from news outlets, non-profits, social media outlets, universities and training organizations.

Conversations with Ramsess stem from research I did with NPPA in 2015 about what makes a photograph memorable, shareable and worth publishing, especially in the days when most anyone can “publish” with the click of a button. I used eye tracking gear and interviews to get a sense of what people in the general public value in journalistic photography.

Sara Quinn presents at AMPE on eye tracking studies
Sara Quinn presents at AMPE on eye tracking studies

The study showed that people are drawn to images of real people, doing things in real time—to coverage of major events and quiet moments that resonate because they allow us to see the world around us.

There was a strong understanding of the “quality” of images, often articulated as the access that professional journalists have to a scene or event. In one portion of the study participants were able to tell whether a photograph was made by a professional or an amateur 90 percent of the time.

I will never forget a conversation with one test subject in Minneapolis who told me about the photojournalists he followed on Instagram. “My wife is ill,” he said. “We don’t travel and we won’t be traveling. These photographers take me to places I can’t go. They allow me to see the world through their eyes. I like the way they see things.”

A big question for this project is what happens to people in a community deprived of seeing what’s going on in their communities because visual journalists have been cut?

Journalists in 2020 are faced with distrust. Newsrooms and platforms are evolving while shrinking, yet the need for strong photojournalism through photo and video is more important than ever. 

Through our RJI project, we hope to reframe the narrative on quality visual journalism with case studies and tools for what works best with limited resources. This includes both still and video photojournalism.

“There are photographers that are doing some really fine work in small communities,” said Sue Morrow, editor of News Photographer Magazine for NPPA. “It’s interesting, when we first started talking about this, we said ‘small papers.’ Then, I thought ‘Wait a minute, that could be anybody!’ You can’t really say ‘small staff’ because the staffs are small even in newsrooms that used to be big.”

Average time spent looking at professional photographs in the study

What comes next: 

We’re currently interviewing media leaders and dynamic photojournalists—primarily in small-ish news markets. We’ll conduct focus groups to determine how photos and video are perceived by our audiences, using a website for collecting data. Elements of the project will be shared through social media and on the websites of RJI and NPPA.

We’ll create materials and workshops with hands-on exercises that will be given free of charge to newsrooms, universities and non-profits with the goal of supporting best practices in picture editing and visual storytelling.  

Topics include:

  • breaking news photos
  • long-form photo stories
  • enterprise and feature photos
  •  caption writing for strong context
  • planning and newsroom conversation
  • strategy for visuals on social media
  • making the best use of file images and managing digital files
  • developing sources and access in the community
  • how audiences engage with visuals, what they value

Visual reporting takes planning, vision and strong editing. Stories of nuance and humanity deserve great photojournalism. 

We’d like to hear from you about the tools that storytellers need to make produce strong, visual storytelling. Give us your wish list, or tell us how you’d like to be involved!

“We want to help news organizations see the value of visuals and what they can do—even with limited resources,” said Ramsess. “It’s still quite possible to produce great journalism in small markets.”

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