February 7, 2013

Maybe you have a Web CMS that requires an image to be associated with some stories. Maybe you just need some kind of image, any image, to color an otherwise gray slate of text.

Whatever the reason, many news websites make use of generic images — either purchased stock images or reused file photos — to illustrate articles.

Sometimes it’s pretty obvious that such an image is a posed stock photo. That picture of a cat lounging in fancy clothes with a gold chain, hundred-dollar bills and caviar is probably not going to be mistaken for a documentary news photo.

But others, like a gun or crime-scene tape, can be ambiguous when placed in a related news story.

That’s a problem ABC 17 in Columbia, Mo., has had for the last few years. Many stories about car crashes use the same generic photo of a smashed-up sedan. Likewise with stories about shootings carrying a generic picture of a handgun and shell casings lying on pavement.

Those photos are realistic and relevant enough for a reader to think they’re actually showing the news event in question. And the lack of photo captions or credits leaves the reader at best uncertain.

Similar repeated images are used on stories about fires, robberies, trials, drugs, schools, and so on.

That image of a robbery in progress is actually unrelated to the liquor store robbery the article describes. But the reader wouldn’t know that.

“The use of stock photography without any photographic attribution of obvious credit is a very misleading practice that contributes to the public/audience mistrust of the media,” Poynter senior faculty for visual journalism Kenny Irby told me. “What they are doing is inaccurate, and while it may be seen as the expedient thing to do for immediate visual representation, the long-term impact on credibility is much worse in my view.”

KMIZ News Director Curtis Varns told me “the stock image issue is a concern we do think about. We’re not happy with it.”

“We’ve used these stock photos on stories since we launched our current website a little more than two years ago,” Varns said. “The images are used when we’re not able to provide specific story-related photos. During that time, I have fielded questions from a few readers about this topic. I quickly realized the way the photos were displayed was not ideal but the most we’ve been able to do as an organization is try to minimize their usage.”

The web CMS prevents the station from removing the generic photos, and does not allow them to add captions or explanations to the photos, Varns said. That should be fixed in the next two months.

KMIZ’s use of stock and file photos may be more extreme than you’d usually see on news websites using generic photos. But any ambiguity about the origin and contents of an image can potentially mislead readers.

“The best practice that I have advocated and taught is to offer immediate visual disclosure that the image or photograph is an ‘illustration’ and not authentic photographic reportage,” Irby said. “The viewing public is far more discerning and aware of visual untruths and fabrications today, which is all the more reason for media companies to be transparent about their visual decisions.”

Many news organizations are in greater danger these days of getting sloppy with their choice and labeling of images, he noted. “A casualty of the downturn in the economy and the mass downsizing of newsrooms is the picture editor role. Thus, almost all TV news websites and newer online entities are lacking individuals with expertise in the area of photographic research, reporting and editing.”

If you have to use a generic image with a story, consider looking for one that won’t be confused for a real news photo. Choose an illustration or a visual metaphor that emphasizes a theme of the story but is not realistic. And of course, label it as such.

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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