Commentary: Corporate media’s lack of vision threatens photojournalism's future

Sometimes, the cumulative insults to talented visual journalists make me want to holler and throw up both my hands.

Early last Saturday, veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning St. Louis photojournalist David Carson was approached via Twitter by a representative from CBS News to publish his compelling photographs from a chaotic shooting scene at a Friday night football game. PetaPixel's Michael Zhang chronicled the exchange on Tuesday.

I reached out to CBS News for a reaction and a spokesman replied by email. “Someone on our news desk was simply doing their job and attempting to clear material using Twitter. This seems like a bit of an overreaction.”

Three days later, though, Carson told me by phone, he had not reconsidered his terse Twitter response, “I am not going to give away my hard-earned work to broadcast producers (for usage rights) across all platforms."

It is clear that broadcasters and other media companies need compelling still photojournalism to drive viewership, yet they are unwilling to invest in that content.

Carson is not opposed to sharing and partnerships. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a contractual arrangement with FOX2 KTVI television. The station used the compelling photos, and that was fine.

But as for CBS, "I’m comfortable not getting greater exposure," Carson reflected. "Our work has value, and I won’t give it away for free. I really object to that kind of treatment. Just to expect someone to give away quality work for free is insulting."

CBS certainly ought to have known that Carson and the Post-Dispatch owned a copyright to the photo. This wasn't an amateur posting a iPhone snap to a sharing site.

So give CBS credit for seeking permission in an age where far too many publications ignore photographers' copyrights and justify the photographic thievery, invoking the “if it's posted on the Internet, it's fair game” argument. Let me alert you all that ignorance is not an effective defense in court.

In my view, Carson was on point in seeing the request as part of a trend devaluing the work of professional visual journalists.

Earlier this week, while teaching as a visiting lecturer at the innovative and growing Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism, I was confronted with news of Gannett’s buyout offers at the once pioneering Arizona Republic newsroom that now employs two picture editors and 11 staff photographers.

The current trend — conspicuously The Chicago Sun-Times' choice to eliminate staff photographers and equip untrained writers with smart phone cameras — is beyond me. That's not a strategy to capture compelling, engaging and enlightening visual reporting

So, my questions are:

How can it be that in such a visual age, American newsrooms are eliminating visual reporters/storytellers and editors from the ranks of full-time workforce in unprecedented numbers?

And how is it that major media companies are asking visual reporters with photographic, video and graphic skills to work for credit and crumbs, compared to their writing, editing and producing colleagues?


Previously: St. Louis photographer on scene at riots: ‘This is my job’

  • Kenneth Irby

    Kenny founded Poynter's photojournalism program in 1995. He teaches in seminars and consults in areas of photojournalism, leadership, ethics and diversity.


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