Not everyone can be a news photographer (even if management thinks so)

Chicago photo compare.jpg

Occasionally I like to highlight recent interesting (and relevant) research into journalism because, frankly, academic researchers do a sadly average job of delivering findings in understandable and widespread form to the practitioners who would benefit from them.

Many news organizations forced to save money in recent years decided they didn’t need all those professional photographers, because after all, any reporter or even any citizen with a smartphone could take a photo or a video good enough to publish. Wish they had been able to read the conclusion of researchers Tara M. Mortensen of the University of South Carolina and Peter J. Gade of the University of Oklahoma.

They studied photos published by a medium-sized newspaper in New York before and after the paper laid off its entire photo staff in 2013. Their findings: Compared to non-professionals (citizens, PR), pro photographers “are better at capturing intimate, emotional and graphically appealing images” (Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 2018). While non-professional photos were “purely informational images of people and places,” pro images more often included “conflict, action, human element (and) timeliness.” They further concluded: “These findings refute suggestions that enhanced digital technology and rapid-fire cameras allow non-professionals to routinely produce photojournalism on par with professionals.” The study also found that photos by reporters remained rare after the layoffs, “suggesting that reporters were seldom expected or capable of shooting photography while on reporting assignments.”

But for all the validation of professional photographers, the researchers’ ultimate conclusion was a sad one: Pro photographers had not established enough worth (“legitimacy”) in the minds of management to withstand organizations’ desperate rush to slash the payroll (not unlike assignment editors, copy editors, statehouse reporters, neighborhoods reporters and anyone over 50 who was making a lot of money). Certainly managers knew photo quality would suffer, but they believed marginal yet acceptable alternative sources existed. In other words, they deemed the degree of decline in quality as less than the degree of gain in wealth, and that’s all that mattered.

For famous anecdotal support, I’ve posted comparison photos (sized based on their actual page display) from the Chicago Tribune (top) and the Chicago Sun-Times showing the Blackhawks bringing the Stanley Cup to town in 2013. I’m thinking you can figure out which one laid off its photo staff one month earlier.