Journalism has a catch-22 problem with visuals

Hare: Hi, Ren! Last week we laid out some of the stories we plan to explore about photojournalism and we spoke with a photojournalist about the strains of thinking visually when there are a lot fewer visual thinkers in most newsrooms. We’re continuing that conversation this week, right? 

LaForme: We are, indeed! I called up Cathaleen Curtiss, the photography director at the Buffalo News, which is, by the way, my hometown newspaper. I called to talk about photo policies and how newsrooms generally create the rules and guidelines about how to use visuals. But we ended up having a great freewheeling conversation about her career, the photojournalism industry and how modern journalists relate with photos.

Hare: Excellent. We’ve traditionally used this space to talk about tools that can help us work better, and even though we’re focusing here more on processes and standards than apps or platforms, I think it still serves the same purpose. 

LaForme: I think so, too. For anyone feeling a little parched for the tools talk, I’m still covering them once a week in my newsletter. But I think this has been a useful and necessary conversation so far and I’m looking forward to continuing it. 

Hare: Me, too. Well, take it away! 

LaForme: Your career is so interesting. I'd love if you could just kick us off by talking a little bit about what drew you to photojournalism and what it's meant to you.

Curtiss: I grew up on a dairy farm. I was a 4Her, and I took photography at the 4H project. The local newspaper always judged the photography part of the 4H fair. One year, maybe my senior year, the person who was judging it said to me that I should think about doing it as a profession. I remember as a kid, I was looking into occupational therapy, which I had gone and (done) my little visit at a senior center, and thought, this is not what I want to do. I wasn't really sure about where I was going, and when they suggested that, I thought, “oh, wow.” You know, get paid to tell stories, I like that. So I changed my major and went to Central Michigan University and studied journalism.

LaForme: That's great.

Curtiss: Photography had always been sort of my way of I'm not getting stuck at the kids' table at Thanksgiving because I was taking pictures with my camera, and got to sit with the adults that way. It's always been. In fact, my managing editor was just asking me about some pictures he had seen of [my husband’s] surgeries over the course of the last year. He's like, "I have no idea how you managed to make wonderful photos of something that had to be so difficult." In a way, it's, like many photographers, being behind the camera is how I escape.

LaForme: Right. I totally get that. I think that's one of those things that photography and writing really have in common, which is that we can sort of use our craft to make the world seem both a lot more personal and less personal in a way.

Curtiss: Less daunting.

LaForme: Yeah, less daunting in a way.

Curtiss: It's like it gives you an appreciation for what you are experiencing and somewhat takes you out of the heaviness of it.

LaForme: Right. It makes you reflect, but also makes it seem more universal, which is a weird combination.

Curtiss: Yeah. It is. It's definitely an irony.

LaForme: So I'd like to talk about photo policy more specifically. At Poynter, we work with a lot of startups, and small, new local news organizations, some of who may have never had photo policies, but also a lot of newsrooms that have seen some really deep cuts who might be revisiting their policies or realizing that they got lost somewhere along the way. So I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about what a photo policy does, what types of things are in it, and in your experience, whether most newsrooms have them.

Curtiss: When you're saying a photo policy, what exactly are you talking about, like how they use social media, or what the expectations are for the staff, or work in general?

LaForme: I think I'm talking about how the staff deals with visuals, and the rules and expectations of them, formal or informal, and how that works.

Curtiss: I'm very fortunate in that (at) the Buffalo News, the vice president of the news department, Mike Connelly, is very forward-thinking about visuals. Up until two years ago, the Buffalo News hadn't had a director of photography or a person in charge of visuals. He created the position so that I could come onto the staff. In 2016, to have a newspaper create a position for their photographers to have an advocate on their side, speaks highly to how much the news values the visuals in the paper and online. Part of our discussions as we were going forward in my decision to go back to the newspaper was that we were looking at photography and photojournalism as being the visual story, and that's so much more powerful in the new online world than it was even in print.

The News does a really good job of creating amazing print packages, but when it comes to photography, we've really tried to push that. We concentrate on the story that can be told really well through pictures, so I'd rather have one photographer spend a day, or half a day, or three days if it's needed, to tell a really good story that people want to read and know more about, than driving to six different places around the county to get headshots.

We really take a very hard look at what's the story, what's the human interest? How can it be told in a story-type style where photos tell the story as you go? In our experience, those tend to be the best galleries, galleries that have photos with a story that is told.

LaForme: Do you have these values sort of codified somewhere, or is that an informal understanding?

Curtiss: It's an informal understanding. Until I came on board, the photographer reported to anybody who happened to be the editor that day for the section they were working for, and the images kind of showed that because they were just running from one place to the next. One of the things when I was meeting with the management and formulating the vision that I had for the department was that we really wanted to drive better visuals. They truly understood that a better photograph drives more engagement than a mediocre photograph. Better photographs are made by professional photographers who are invested in the outcome as opposed to someone who's just taking a quick phone picture and mailing it in.

That's my ongoing pep talk with my staff — is that they need to always be better than someone who could just mail in a photo, and we really have stepped up. They're as much a journalist as they are a photographer.

LaForme: If I'm a designer or a web producer and I have to post a story online and I realize that I'm lacking a visual, what do I ideally do? Does that person approach someone on the photo team?

Curtiss: Usually, they will come to me first and say, "Hey, we're doing a story on historic homes in Amherst, and here are six places that we're going to be highlighting. Can we go and photograph? What are our options?" Then, we talk about it. Are any of them places that will let us come in and do an in-depth look at the house, or the business, or the building if it's an old building? If that's not possible on the deadline, have we ever shot it before? Are there outtakes that we can use? If none of that is available, then we try to hold the story until we can get a photographer out to photograph, hopefully creatively, the outside of some of the buildings so that it's not just a story without visuals. What we don't do, or we try not to do, is to just pull a generic picture of a building and slap it on a story. 

We run into trouble when we have small fires and there's a brief on it, and they'd like to have a picture online and they use a generic firetruck. We've run into some challenges where we have a fire in January, but the firetruck photo was actually a photo from August. Part of my job is continually educating our web producer that even though it's a file art and it's generic, it still has to represent the situation in some form of intelligent way. You can't slap up any police car when you're talking about crime because if it's the City of Buffalo, you would need a City of Buffalo car. You wouldn't put an Amherst Police car. 

Then also, make sure that the photos are not misrepresenting what's there, that it's just a picture of a police car, and you're not trying to say that this is a police car from the scene. That can be a really tricky battle to make sure that you are correctly illustrating or showing the story, but not incorrectly making people think that it's from the actual scene. It's a balancing act.

LaForme: Could you talk a little bit more about what the danger is there? What's the danger in using a photo from October in a story that happens in May?

Curtiss: Because it'd be the same danger of taking a quote by a fire chief who went to a fire in August about a house fire, and then using his same quote for a business fire in January. It's out of context. You have to be careful that in this time of where everybody's constantly hearing “fake news, fake news,” that you're not putting a picture out there that might reinforce their belief that we're just giving them something that's not true or not real.

We're living in a time where everybody's looking to see, "oh, see, they didn't do that," or "this isn't correct." And if you put a picture up where you're talking about a house (that) caught on fire because people were using a blowtorch to saw the pipe, and you show a picture of a firetruck with flowers blooming in the background, it's just misleading. It's as misleading as misquoting somebody.

LaForme: Sure. I think that gets to the issue that we're hearing a lot about of the use of very generic stock photography, and that it not only doesn't further the story, that it possibly misleads people.

Curtiss: Yeah. It's not the truth. When you write a story, you don't say, "Oh, I didn't ask him what color the van was so I'll just call it blue." You don't make up ages for people in a story if you forget to ask. I think that that's what gets lost often on the word side of things is that just because you can find a picture of a firetruck doesn't mean that it accurately represents the fire that you're talking about.

LaForme: Absolutely. In the past couple weeks, I've heard from a lot of different people who have different opinions on stock photography. I keep hearing from very small places who don't have digital people on staff. They're wondering, is it the case that stock photography is a last source when you don't have anything else, or is it something that you should shy away from completely? Because we’ve heard that from photographers, too. 

Curtiss: I think it depends on the story and the context. We often use stock photography in our style and home and garden section. If they're doing a story on hydrangeas, I don't see a problem with showing a picture of a hydrangea. Now, if they're doing a story on a very specific type of hydrangea, then you would need to be more careful that the hydrangea is the specific one they're talking about. Or if, god forbid, you're doing a story on a red-tailed hawk and you put a picture of a Cooper's hawk up. I don't know about the birders in your area, but the birders in our area would be all over us for putting the incorrect thing in.

LaForme: Absolutely. You don't want to upset the birders.

Curtiss: No. They're a very strong group.

LaForme: Have you seen some of these ethical challenges change over the course of your career? 

Curtiss: I don't know if it's interesting, but it has been interesting for me because when I first went to AOL, they were just starting to use photos online. We used, and this is back in 1997, so we used a lot of royalty-free, generic stuff to illustrate stories when I first started. It took me a long time to get people to understand that. 

I remember one time when I was with AOL, we were doing a story on dangerous people that might live in your neighborhood. They used a generic picture of this couple from the royalty-free site, but on the same day, we used the same exact royalty-free couple in a story about, I think was adoption or something. So in one case, we used them as oh, these people could be bad and they live next door to you, and in the other story on the same day, we talked about how these were amazing people who were changing adoption.

LaForme: Oh no.

Curtiss: It was sort of at that moment that I was starting to get people to recognize that one, we needed to know how we use generic photos and where we use them, and two, generic photos can be misleading.

LaForme: Absolutely. Let me ask, if I'm at one of these small newsrooms that maybe hasn't had a visual person because we've only been around a couple years, or if I'm at one of these many, many unfortunate newsrooms who have lost the lion's share of visual people, what's the best place for me to go to to start to understand and get a grasp on some of these ethical concerns?

Curtiss: Unfortunately, as newsrooms are being cut and changed, along with that we start to lose some of the historical references and the integrity that goes along with things like that. It leaves photographers, and reporters, and editors at a loss of who to go to. I think in situations, we often end up with people making decisions who either don't have the experience or haven't been trained with the legal ramifications of some of the choices they make. The short answer is right now, there isn't enough of that, where people can go and get the answers. There are professional organizations like NPPA [Mickey H. Osterreicher, NPPA's general counsel, is Curtiss' husband] and ASMP that photographers can go to, but the producers and the word people don't have that same. Some of them might go to ONA or to Poynter, but there really isn't that source out there that's saying, "No, do this, do that."

When I was at AOL and we were growing out our city guide, which was sort of like local, city websites all over the U.S., we put together a user's guide for our staff. You know, if you have a generic picture, it needs to come from our file that we've bought and paid for. You can't just do a Google image search and use whatever you find. We put together sort of a basic, best-use scenarios of, you know, try not to use people's faces when they're in generic things, even if they're royalty-free, because that changes the context of the story, because as soon as you put in a picture of a blond couple, and the story might be about someone who looks completely different, you're changing the way people see the story.

One of the things that we have done at the News — now, the News is a little different because we're a union paper, so there are certain things that can and can't be in print — but we have sessions where we do training. I've worked with all of the reporters on how to use their iPhones, how to focus their iPhones, how to zoom in a way that won't make the pictures too pixelated. It's basically been like basic photo 101, rule of thirds, how to layer your image so that what you really want in the photo is in focus. 

I'll be the first one to say I don't think that the reporters' images are as good as the photographers', but in 2017, the photo staff can't be everywhere. I support user-generated content when it's in context. 

Like earlier this year, we had a major pileup on I-90. There was a woman who was caught in the middle of the backup and all the crashing cars who had taken images. We couldn't get a photo person there because the 90 was closed. It wasn't near any of the overpasses, and this woman was emailing us photos from her car. There was not a better way to illustrate what it felt like to be in this 20-car pileup than to have the photos from a person who was there. 

Would I have liked for it to have been one of my photographers because the images would have been quite a bit better? Sure, but she sent me the images, and we were able to clean them up and crop them and make them so you really did feel what it felt like to be there. That, I think, is a perfect use of user-generated content. One of the things that we tell the photographers and the reporters when they go out at the scene of a crime, to look around and see if anybody's there who may have taken pictures and would be willing to have them published.

LaForme: Yeah. It's sort of a new frontier, where we've sort of, not only with photojournalism but with all journalism, democratized it, and a lot of people participate in it now.

Curtiss: Absolutely. I mean, look at the number of stories that now get written off of tweets.

LaForme: True, for better or worse.

Curtiss: For better or for worse. I mean, I'd much rather read a story that's put together by a really good reporter or columnist who can tell the story well than a bunch of tweets that are disjointed. But if all you have are the disjointed tweets to understand what the scene was like, then they become important.

LaForme: Right. Well, I really want to thank you for your time. As we wrap up here, I'm wondering if there's anything else you'd like to share with our broader journalism audience about photojournalism or other ethical considerations.

Curtiss: I wish that more places were forward-thinking in realizing that digital, we're in this sort of catch-22. Everybody's talking about “oh, well we need to have photos because that's what gets people's attention,” but then they do a 360 and go "so I'll just get any picture that'll do." We need to get out of this good enough is good enough because it isn't. 

We need to have people who go above and beyond good enough and give you great visuals, and let you feel what it's like to be in a situation, whether it's telling the story of someone who's been married for 60 years, or at a fire scene where you're capturing everything that's going on. Good visuals drive readers, and attention, and engagement, and page views, or whatever other description you want to use. I just wish that more publications would understand that.

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