The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Category: photo selection

Telling the story of poverty in words and images

A Business Insider story has been bouncing around in my Twitter and Facebook feeds for the past day or so. The article focuses on the increase of poverty in North Carolina.

The topic is certainly newsworthy and worth discussion on social media. This state and others have struggled economically since the Great Recession hit in 2007.

The BI story cites a Brookings Institution report and another from the Pew Charitable Trusts. It quotes Gene Nichol, director of the UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. More sources would add context and nuance to the piece, but the ones used are knowledgeable on the topic.

Where the article falls short is in its selection of photographs and captions. Scrolling down the page, the reader sees images of hardscrabble scenes in Charlotte, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

The photo of downtown Raleigh caught my eye first. It looks outdated, so I asked on Twitter whether anyone could identify when it was taken. Matt Robinson of Metroscenes.com responded that the photo is from 2005. Here’s a more recent photo of the city’s skyline.

The image from Charlotte is also misleading: The “old movie theater” is a music club called The Visulite. The place may not be pretty, but it’s open for business.

Each image appears to have been pulled from Flickr accounts. Not one has a person in it. The bare-bones captions don’t connect the images to the story text.

My colleague Jock Lauterer, who teaches photojournalism and other courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, suggests this approach to the visual side of this story: Find several people from various backgrounds who are struggling with poverty and unemployment. Take portrait-style shots that reflect their daily lives.

“For a documentary photo to be compelling, it must include the human element,” Lauterer said.

Andria Krewson, an editor at mediagazer.com and a Charlotte freelancer and consultant, reacted this way on Twitter:

Maybe it’s time to start teaching photo editing again. 1. Pick up phone 2. Call a local paper. 3. Offer to pay or swap, because Google search and Flickr search for Creative Commons free stuff ain’t cutting it.

I agree with Andria and Jock. Some news stories can be illustrated by drawing from repositories of free images. This isn’t one of them. Poverty is about people, not buildings. We need to see the faces of the problem to fully understand it.

The option to crop a photo

On Facebook over the weekend, a former News & Observer copy editor posted an image of a front page from 2009. As you can see here, the centerpiece photograph that day was from a tea party rally.

uncropped-pubicLook carefully at the sign held by the woman on the left. You’ll see that she has made the dreaded public/pubic error. It’s a common mistake that can cause embarrassment and prompt apologies.

Now take a look at this version of the same photograph on the same front page from that day of the Raleigh newspaper:

cropped-pubicSee the difference? For the final edition that day, editors at the N&O cropped the image to eliminate the sign’s error.

But was that the right decision? As one commenter on Facebook said: “It’s not a dirty word, and the woman was there to be photographed.”

The Mideast and the media

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the news again, and with it, criticism of the media’s coverage.

Letters to the editor in The News & Observer claimed bias against Palestinians and against Israel. Readers of The New York Times were irritated by photo placement and wording of a caption. And Jon Stewart mocked a “winners and losers” approach to the situation in Gaza.

All of this sounds familiar. As wire editor at the N&O from 2001 to 2005, I heard similar complaints from readers when the Mideast was in the news, especially on the front page. I met on separate occasions from media watchdog groups in the Raleigh area: one saying our coverage was biased toward Israel, the other saying we were biased toward the Palestinians.

The lazy response is to say if both sides are complaining, then your coverage must be right down the middle. That is a cop-out. The reality is no coverage of any issue is perfect. Listening to constructive criticism from readers can be helpful.

My response to critics of what we published and why went like this: Follow our coverage for a longer period than a day or a week. If you look at it on a broad spectrum, you’ll see that we are doing our best to provide a fair view of the region based on the resources (mostly wire services) that we have. That’s all we can do.

Student guest post: Viewing news through a different lens

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Emily Nycum is a reporting major and art history minor. After graduation in May 2012, she will expand the professional photography business she started last year, Emily March Photography.

I love photography. Few things on this planet get me as excited as the opportunity to take pictures of a beautiful place or person, and the sound of a shutter is music to my ears. It amazes me how a single image can conjure up a range of emotions. I have always been a very visual person, so what draws me into a story is its photograph.

More than a catchy headline or modern design, a story’s image (if it has one at all) is its hook for me. Have a captivating picture, and I’ll read your story.

With the growth in online media and news, photography has become an essential feature of most stories on the Web. It seems that the vast majority of stories online have some kind of image to go along with them. In many cases (and I love this) the photos are the story.

Slideshows have become an alternative story form that give the reader more to look at than just text. Many news outlets, including The New York Times, have entire sections highlighting unique stories presented through photojournalism. I love the quality and diversity of work seen in this section. Here, photographers have the opportunity to not only share current events visually, but also human interest stories and features that provide additional education to the viewer.

I’ll be honest. I really don’t keep up with current events. You would think that after four years of journalism classes where I’ve learned the importance of media in society that I would have gained some semblance of desire to read the newspaper every once in a while, but no.

Enter the “photos of the day” feature that many newspapers are incorporating into their online platforms. In only a few minutes, I can see what happened in the world that is big, exciting or unique. Plus, I get to learn while feasting my eyes. Features like this are fantastic for people who like to get their news quickly, which is pretty much everyone I know.

Now think about the article you read in this morning’s paper. I don’t know about you, but when I think of the events that have shaped the world during my lifetime, I don’t remember headlines or news articles. I remember images.

Think of Sept. 11, 2001 or the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, what comes to mind? I immediately think of the terrifying sight of the Twin Towers burning and the heart-wrenching scene of a firefighter carrying the limp body of a toddler.

Those scenes have been immortalized because of what they mean to people in light of the events that brought them. Photographs move, inspire and provoke people.  On Sept. 12, 2001, no American could look at pictures of dazed New Yorkers roaming the ash-laden streets of Manhattan and not want to do something about it. I think that Robert Doisneau, an early 20th-century French photographer, put it beautifully: “I don’t usually give out advice or recipes, but you must let the person looking at the photograph go some of the way to finishing it. You should offer them a seed that will grow and open up their minds.”

Pictures have a way of expressing things that words simply cannot. So hats off to the photojournalists who provide a different kind of news, the kind of news that elicits a response, not just an opinion. So maybe a picture is not worth 1,000 words. Perhaps, instead, a picture is worth 1,000 actions.

Hurricane Irene: One photo, two audiences

When Hurricane Irene struck the coast of North Carolina this weekend, journalists were there. It’s dangerous work to cover a storm.

That’s what occurred to me when I saw this photo in a slideshow by The News & Observer shortly after Irene twisted its way across the northeast corner of the state. It’s a picture that captured the attention of many editors.

It appeared prominently on the front pages of several North Carolina newspapers, including the N&O and The Charlotte Observer:

Front pages for NC papers covering Hurricane Irene

Editors at the New York City tabloids also took note of the image as they put together front pages anticipating Irene’s arrival there:

New York tabloid front pages on Irene

It’s interesting to see how these publications cropped the photo and how the images interact with the headlines. One image, two audiences, different tones to the story packages.

Thanks to @RL_Bynum for noticing this and pointing it out on Twitter.

The star of the earthquake

The Eastern United States was surprised by an earthquake this week. The tremors started in Virginia and were felt hundreds of miles away, causing evacuations and general confusion.

Damage was minimal, but that didn’t stop newspapers in the region from making this the big story of the day. An earthquake in this part of the country has the news value of oddity, after all.

Several newspapers chose the same image of Susy Ward, a flabbergasted office worker in Washington, D.C. Here are variations on that theme:

Earthquake front pages

It’s the sort of photo that an editor loves: It has a regular person reacting to an unusual situation, and it has a bit of scene-setting. So Susy is a star for a day.

Not all newspapers went with that sort of presentation. Here are a couple of meta-centerpieces:

Front pages from East Coast quake

It’s a risky choice, even cheesy. If there had been fatalities, these newspapers wouldn’t have done this. But these front pages are serving the purpose of generating lots of talk on Twitter and Facebook.

Here’s what one friend said about the Star-Ledger: “It’s horrible, but I give them credit for trying to make people notice it. At least they’re trying something instead of standing around looking at each other while the paper dies a slow, painful death.”

UPDATE: For more front pages and analysis, check out this post on Charles Apple’s blog.

From North Carolina to South America

In late 2001, when I was wire editor at The News & Observer, I proposed (or pitched, as we called it) a story about Argentina’s financial crisis for the front page. It was a hard sell, because I had to make the case for why it mattered to readers in North Carolina.

The story ended up at the bottom of the page, and then inside the newspaper from then on. Argentina’s problems, which included rioting and looting, faded from the North American media as the situation got better.

Nearly 10 years later, journalism students at UNC-Chapel Hill and Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina have collaborated on a multimedia website called What Now, Argentina. Using a variety of story forms and graphics, the site documents daily life in the the capital, Buenos Aires, and it explains the origins of the 2001 crisis. It does all of that in English and Spanish.

We’ve come a long way from a 25-paragraph wire story, photo and headline. I encourage you to take a look.

A slideshow with nothing to show

Roger Ebert, film critic and prolific Twitterer, recently criticized The Huffington Post’s use of slideshows this way: “Dear HuffPost: Slideshows are a cheap trick to force more hits. I refuse to play.”

The Huffington Post is certainly not the only site to use weak slideshows to generate clicks. But it does seem to do more than its share of meaningless ones.

Here’s my example of a bad slideshow from HuffPo. The news, as stated in the headline, is a list of “states with the fewest college degree holders.”

After a bit of introductory text, the reader is then invited to click through 13 slides with a Flickr image from each state and the percentage of people who live there who have a college degree, presumably of the four-year variety. (To save you time, I will tell you that Arkansas came in first, or last, depending on how you look at it.)

The choice of images in the slides is curious. For Mississippi, we get a view of a lovely wooded area. For Georgia, we are offered a street scene of Atlanta, including the historic Fox Theater.

The question, of course, is why these images? Why present this information this way? Is it the best way to convey this news, such as it is, to the reader?

The answer to the last question is no. This isn’t a visual story, so the slideshow format is ill-suited to the news. In other words, there’s nothing to see here.

So what would work better? A simple list would. Or, if you are feeling a little bit interactive, you could do what the Chronicle of Higher Education did and present this information as a map that allows the reader to roll over each state and see the percentage of the college-educated population of each one.

For better slideshows, try these sites:

Editors at these sites are matching images and words well to convey information to readers. Their slideshows tell a story.

For further reading on effective slideshows, check out this post by Mindy McAdams at her excellent blog, Teaching Online Journalism.

Covering the Greek crisis

The financial crisis in Greece has led to the predictable references in the media to Grecian Formula and Greek dramas. But this clever cover and headline from The Economist caught my eye this week.

I wasn’t the only one who was attracted to this cover, a riff on the movie poster to the movie “Apocalypse Now.” This week, I observed a girl in line at Whole Foods who was attracted by this cover. The girl, who looked to be about 14, picked the magazine from the rack and stared at the cover for a good 15 seconds. She then flipped through the magazine for a minute or two before placing it back on the rack, unpurchased.

I didn’t buy the magazine either, but I read the story online.

Kerry gets mugged again

kerryIn November 2006, I wrote about this file photo of Sen. John Kerry. Its frequent appearance in The News & Observer drew criticism from readers who found it unflattering.

The Kerry mug, which is nearly five years old, appeared again today on page 2B of the N&O and in the online version of the story. As I said then, file mugs are hard to kill. This one is like a zombie.

More on the use of mug shots here.

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