During a week when millions of viewers/readers keenly search internet screen, mobile devices and publication pages for photographic images of a botched Super Bowl XLIX pass, an encaged Jordanian ISIS hostage and a tragic Taiwanese TransAsia Airways flight 235, the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) released some pretty revealing findings of their own.

The question the study looked at is “What makes a photograph worth publishing in an age when images are shared in an instant, around the world?” The study has gone beyond the anecdotal to provide some scientific facts.

John Loengrad, former Life Magazine picture editors insisted that the picture editors see her/his roles as the advocate for the photographer,  “Other editors, with the story’s text in hand, may judge photographs by what they have read. Don’t join them. The reader sees before he ever reads and may never read if there’s nothing interesting to see.”

In this interview, research author Sara Quinn shares her insights and lessons learned.

Tell us about your most recent research.

Quinn: I worked with the National Press Photographers Association to look at how people engage with photojournalism—what they look at in a news photograph, how they read captions, what they value, remember and want to share.

What was the primary goal of the research?

Quinn: In part, to see if people could distinguish between the work of professionally trained photojournalists and user-generated images—images sent in by the public.

How did you go about creating the test?

Quinn: I aggregated 200 published images for the test. One hundred had been taken by professional journalists and 100 photographs submitted by members of the general public and published by various news organizations. The photographs were arranged in a random order with their original, published captions.

What was the methodology? Did you just sit people down in a room? How did you go about gathering their responses?

Quinn:I recruited people from around the Minneapolis area in two different age groups. One group was 18-30 years old and the other was 45-60 years old. Half of them were men, half were women. It’s a research technique, to clearly distinguish between two different ages. These age groups are the same that we have used for other eyetracking studies for Poynter.

How did your previous experience with eyetracking inform this work?

Quinn:There are certain things that our eyetracking research has shown over time. When people sit down to any type of media—print, online, tablet and so forth—photographs always draw attention. The largest photograph or headline in a design tends to draw the first gaze. Previously, we have focused on elements of interface. This new focus on photojournalism helps to round out our picture of news consumption.

So, what’s the news, given that visual leaders have stressed the importance of strong photography for a long time? What does your research show?

Quinn:Professional photographs were preferred to amateur photographs out of the 200 images in the study.

I asked the participants to rate the quality of each image they looked at on a scale of 1 to 5. I also asked them to rate the likelihood that they might share each image.

When we analyzed the data, we found that each photograph rated highest had been taken by a professional photojournalist. And, professional images were twice as likely to be shared by the participants.

When I asked what photographs had been most memorable out of the group of 200 or so they had just seen, participants recalled professional images.

What other findings could newsrooms benefit from?

Quinn:Captions were very well read and important to context and understanding. A well-written—or even just lengthier—caption increased the likelihood that a photograph received attention.

Captions with the pro photographs in the study tended to be well developed, and received 30 percent of the average time spent on an image. The user-generated captions were generally short and incomplete, receiving little attention.

So, good captions are crucial. The study furthers our understanding of this. I have now personally watched dozens of people as they viewed dozens of photographs. People look back and forth between caption and image to establish the story. That translates into comprehension and retention.

What else?

Quinn:People had distinct opinions about the storytelling qualities of a photo and what made it worth publishing.

The 52 people in the study came from a variety of walks of life—a cement worker, housewives, a flight attendant, a school nurse, a statistics grad student, quite a few international students, office workers. When we began, I didn’t know if they might say, “oh, a photo is a photo is a photo,” or if they would have more to say about the photographs we showed them.

They were pretty articulate, and their comments surprised me. They mentioned the importance of having access to an event, capturing a perspective that they might never get the chance to see. … in addition to making comments about the technical qualities of an image. And, an emphasis on “story” came up in nearly every interview.

Any other big finds?

Quinn: People were able to tell whether a photo had been taken by a professional or an amateur 90 percent of the time.

How does the eyetrack apparatus work?

Quinn: Research expert Nora Paul and the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communications allowed us to use their eye-tracking lab. We used a small device with an invisible, infrared camera that sits under a computer monitor. It records the gaze of a person as he or she looks at a photograph. The result is a video that shows what someone is looking at, at any given time.

Watching these videos, I found most people look at a face in a photograph first. And they are very interested in the interactions and relationships between people in a photograph. They tend to look back and forth between faces and the physical dealings between people in a photo.

A test subject in the eyetracking research at the University of Minnesota talks about one photograph in a set of images taken at a Bollywood awards ceremony in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Alex Garcia)
A test subject in the eyetracking research at the University of Minnesota talks about one photograph in a set of images taken at a Bollywood awards ceremony in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Alex Garcia)

I was also able to see how much of a caption a person read, and in what sequence they looked at elements of a photograph.

What’s the broader application of this study? Does this apply to news from organizations that might have decided to eliminate staff photographers in favor of using user-generated content? Is there anything related to this that news leaders should be thinking about?

Quinn: Definitely. Let me just give you my perspective, based on what I’ve learned from this research. While there certainly is reason to reach out to the community for varied perspectives—whether it be photography or writing, man-on-the-street or commentary from the community—people still find the context and quality of published material important to reporting on the what’s happening in the world.

We saw recently, the New York Times published a series of Instagram photos about the blizzard.

Quinn:Right, I consider things like that to be an interesting addition to—not replacement for quality photojournalism.

I have another example, from a high school publication: A student took a quick photo and quote from every student he found studying late one evening in a downtown library before finals (or mid-terms). He posted it to Snapchat. It was essentially a visual, social media poll of an impromptu event that might not be covered by local media.

It wasn’t high quality photojournalism, of course, but it was certainly an interesting way to report on an event. Picked up by a media organization, this would have been user-generated content.

Our research shows that people recognize and value the trained eye of a professional photojournalist—someone who is able to gain access and find a visual reporting perspective.

And, we asked the question in a variety of different research forms—quality ratings, eyetracking, likelihood of sharing, a query on the origin of a series of photographs, exit interviews—and the findings show a strong awareness of quality.

UGC offers possibilities for gathering varied perspectives, but that is very different than relying on user-generated content for all coverage.

It’s interesting to think about this on a continuum of photojournalism, where professional photojournalism is at the top and snapshot photography is at the bottom. We might ask, is there a place for pro-sumer level—to borrow a metaphor from camera manufacturers— of imagery that falls somewhere in between?

Quinn:Just as we might be able to find a letter to the editor that was so well-crafted that you might consider it to be of a professional standard, it’s still not the norm.

What questions do you feel were stimulated by this research that still need to be addressed?

Quinn:One of the things that I found interesting is the average amount of time that people spent with higher quality — and, in this case, professional— photographs, was greater than the average for any of the published user-generated photographs in the study. People spent 50 percent more time on the pro photographs, on average.

The study showed that the amount of time that people are willing to spend, looking at a photograph (and a caption) that is well executed is greater with professional level photojournalism.

Some people might say, “well, yeah, we’d expect that.” But, now we have valid, scientific evidence that supports it. I hope that having this bit of research gives us a peg to have a lot of smart conversation around this.

Sara Quinn: In addition to this research and consulting work, I am teaching for one year at Ball State University.

Related link: Learn more about this eyetracking research in a NewsU webinar,
Friday, February 13, 2015 at 2:00pm Eastern Time.