Article about free images 'contradicts everything I hold true about journalism'

I want to get the disclosures out of the way first:

  • I have used material from the Poynter Institute for more than a quarter century to learn how to be a better journalist.
  • I have participated in remote and on-site Poynter Institute training for more than a decade.
  • I have taught at and helped coordinate one of their annual seminars for journalism educators.
  • I have taught multiple webinars for the institute's NewsU platform.
  • I have hosted Poynter-led training here on my campus.
  • I consider many of the people who work for the institute to be dear friends.

With that, I'll say this: On Thursday, the Poynter Institute published a post that has me questioning whether I can continue my relationship with them. 

In my two careers — as a journalist and as a journalism educator — I have worked to raise the level of visual reporting, to raise the awareness of how visuals advance our understanding of our communities and to raise the level of communication within newsrooms on how to incorporate visual reporting into the planning process.

With one post, two people who I have worked closely with attempted to raze everything I have done over the last quarter century. 

Their story, titled, "These tools will help you find the right images for your stories," contradicts everything I hold true about journalism — textual and visual:

  • Journalism is specific, journalism is not generic. 
  • Journalism is precise, journalism is not vague. 
  • Journalism illuminates, journalism does not decorate. 

To believe otherwise is to demean visual journalists, to believe they are lesser, to establish a class system. 

The premise of the piece is that in a rushed atmosphere, visuals are forgotten about and sought as a last step. That's paired with the acknowledgment that visuals increase engagement on all platforms.

To sum, we don't think about visuals BUT visuals are critically important. The solutions offered amount to scouring the web for royalty-free and (hopefully) copyright-released stock images. 

Choosing stock images for news stories is an ethically questionable choice — you don't know the provenance of the image, you don't know the conditions under which it was created and you don't know where else it has been used. It degrades the journalistic integrity of the site. Flip it around — what if there were generic quotes inserted into a story? They wouldn't advance the narrative at all, they would just act as filler.

Part of Poynter's mission statement reads, "We teach leadership, ethical decision-making and fact-checking …" There's no fact checking in stock imagery. The ethics of profiting off of others' work with no compensation is highly questionable. And leadership, as I have always understood it at Poynter, is to look for sustainable ways for journalists and journalism organizations to help their communities understand the issues they face. 

So what do I do now? I run the visual journalism program at the University of Georgia's Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, I serve in numerous capacities for the National Press Photographers Association (which calls Grady College its home). My thoughts over the last day have headed in the direction of severing my relationship with the Poynter Institute, to call them out and walk away.

But that choice silences my voice. For whatever it is worth, I consider myself part of the Poynter Family as, I suspect, anyone who has ever had any significant interactions with the institute does. If I leave the table, no one hears me.

I have asked, through emails and phone conversations, that Poynter retract the column — they have decided that is not an option. 

I'll suggest they append a statement, at the top of the post, that summarizes the outpouring of opposition from the visual journalism community and, as they are developed, link to resources that will help Journalists — capital-J Journalists — illustrate the stories they are telling by working with photojournalists, photo editors and photo agencies to source credibly, ethically and sustainably reported photographs. 

At the top of the list (and, while this may seem self-serving, know that I do not profit from this) would be the webinar that I helped create in 2017 on finding images on a deadline. Perhaps that should come out from behind a paywall.

Second on the list should be a well-reported piece on how journalists at large and small publications, working on teams or alone, can develop the skills to think about the visual aspects of a story from the start of the process. Perhaps the development of a reporting checklist where, "What are the visuals?" sits amongst the top three items. 

Next on the list should be the development of more training on how textual editors and visual editors can learn each other's language and workflow along with a discussion of how upper management should insist on better partnerships because the data — much of it researched and reported by the Poynter Institute — shows that good visuals increase engagement.

My Twitter stream and Facebook feed lit up Thursday night. For decades, photojournalists have been treated as an afterthought in newsrooms small and large. We have been thought of as a service department. 

The next time you're walking your local school's halls or in a reader's kitchen, look at what is pinned to the doors or stuck on the refrigerator — it's the photos. They have been clipped and saved, tucked into drawers and keepsake boxes for generations. 

Now, digital metrics show us the traffic they generate and how they make our audiences feel. 

The poet Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." 

Well crafted visuals illustrate, they educate and they resonate — they make you feel something. 

As the leader in journalism training, it is the responsibility of the Poynter Institute to ensure that journalists — all journalists, regardless of the medium they report with — have the tools they need to report on their communities and the tools they need to build sustainable business models.

That means using images that are accurate, truthful and accountable. It also means understanding their creation and acquisition is a cost that must be factored into a journalism organization's business plan. 

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    Mark E. Johnson

    Mark E. Johnson is the Senior Lecturer of Photojournalism and Chief Technology Officer at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication where he oversees the Visual Journalism program.

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