Pictures in the Press and the Message of the Story

Pictures in the Press and the Message of the Story

Our friends in the press love to profess a degree of emotional detachment from the news and the newsmakers. With sharply honed analytical minds, they seek to discover what is true about a decision maker, a decision, or an event. They then strive, using language at once engaging and yet somehow free of bias or innuendo, to tell that simple truth to their audiences.

I’ve known many reporters. I have great respect for the profession of journalism and for the essential role a free press plays in making this remarkable experiment called democracy work. I also understand that journalists, if for no other reason than the nature of their profession, will invariably tell a different “simple truth” than many, or perhaps all, of the participants in the story would have told. Fair enough.

But I also know that our friends in the press can become rather emotionally engaged in their stories. It’s only natural. One almost has to care to be a good journalist, and caring begets engagement. The exercise of achieving a degree of detachment is difficult under such circumstances. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, reporters and editors fall short of the mark. They are, after all, only human.

It should come as no surprise, then, that there are elements of press reports that tend to be more analytical and dispassionate, and elements where attitudes show through. One of the latter involves the use of portrait photographs.

Pictures speak, sometimes more loudly than text. Knowing that their pictures can speak (and can say very different things, depending on the picture and the context), photographers and reporters and editors routinely face the difficult choice of which single photo to use to capture a moment, or to represent an important figure in the news. Is it the bleary-eyed mug shot, or the professional portrait? The angry, finger-jabbing orator, or the welcoming ambassador? The perplexed or the thoughtful pol?

The truth probably is that any selection of a single photo unavoidably involves tipping the story toward one representation or another. Because any one picture only tells a part of the story. Which also means that the one photo chosen may tell us more about how someone (the reporter, the photographer, the editor) understands the story being told than all the column inches of text.

For an example, look at this photo:

photo 1 scott paine site

I feel like the caption for this photo should be, “Would you trust this man?” knowing full well that the answer is likely to be “No!”

How about this one?

photo 2 scott paine site

Ah! The instructor, clarifying an important point, wanting us to understand.

These are

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both pictures of General Keith Alexander, currently the director of the National Security Administration. The second picture is courtesy of The Guardian and appeared with a story from last summer about the general’s invitation to hackers to help make the Internet more secure. The first appeared with a October story in the Tampa Bay Times about an interview with General Alexander in which he defended the extensive intelligence gathering activities of the NSA, domestically and internationally.

The first picture is likely to induce suspicion . . . probably precisely what the reporter felt. The second might prompt the reader to be more open to what the general has to say . . . which probably wasn’t what the reporter wanted us to feel.

Any picture is going to “speak”; making a choice, and recognizing the implications of the choice, is part of the journalistic art.

Being able to recognize how we are being spoken to by the images others use is a necessary skill for informed citizen.

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