Welcome to Eyes on Research, a frequent column in News Photographer that will digest academic research on still and video photojournalism for the professionals who can put the research into practice. Research needs a real-world audience. This column is the result of discussions between Kevin Moloney and Martin Smith-Rodden, two long-time photojournalists who recently switched over to the academic world. If you have research that professionals can put into action, with results that can be outlined in 700 words, we would love to hear from you at [email protected] or [email protected]
‘Solutions journalism’ may move audiences more than jarring images
By Nicole Dahmen, Ph.D.
As a photojournalism scholar, I want to understand how photos affect us and whether images can help to bring about meaningful change.
Most of the photos I study are jarring, heartbreaking images of unimaginable horror. Make no mistake: Photographs like these can document the often grim reality of our world, and images of tragic events are often vital to journalism. And their power can be indelible: Nick Ut’s photo of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming out in pain, Richard Drew’s photo of the falling man on 9/11 and Shannon Hicks’ photo of terrified children being rushed away from Sandy Hook Elementary School.
We know from research that such images can grab audience attention, become focal points for discussion and influence how audiences understand news topics.
The conventional wisdom is that the visceral reaction to seeing gruesome photos of human suffering will move people from complacency to action in combating atrocities. In other words, the more shocking the image, the thinking goes, the more likely the public will be outraged and motivated to demand a response.
But research is showing us that this isn’t the case. Yes, disturbing images can facilitate a short-term window of action, as we saw from Nilüfer Demir’s photo of a 3-year-old Syrian boy facedown in the sand on a Turkish beach. But the harsh reality is that these types of images do not inspire a sustained humanitarian and political response.
I want to be clear: Photojournalists are doing their job. They’re showing us the horrors of our day. We just aren’t responding as we should. What we’ve learned is that rather than inspiring action, painful photos can make audiences turn away and experience feelings of hopelessness.
So what can visual journalists do?
First, keep capturing images of horror. We absolutely need to know the grim reality.
Second, keep capturing the full range of the human condition — from grief and despair to joy and possibility. And the good news is that this is something that photojournalism has always done. Equally important, photojournalists are often forthcoming about a goal of their work: drawing attention to social issues with the implication that images will inspire action.
Research indicates that images of responses to social problems can inspire just such action.
In recent years we have seen a growing effort by the news media to use evidence-based reporting in covering valid responses to the critical societal problems that plague our society. This type of reporting — known as solutions journalism — can give audiences a more complete account of global events. Solutions journalism isn’t simply positive news or fluff or advocacy. It’s reporting on responses to known problems, offering data and insights — as well as including limitations — about the particular response.
Academic and professional research is looking at solutions journalism, including studies that examine the content, journalists’ opinions and experiences with the practice, and audience responses to solutions stories. Initial research has found that journalists see a real value in the practice, and that solutions-oriented reporting can lead to favorable audience reactions.
The practice of solutions journalism has largely been focused on text-based narratives, but visual reporting — photos, video, data visualization, VR/AR (virtual reality/augmented reality) — can also be solutions journalism.
When it comes to climate change reporting, for example, images of the negative effects such as melting ice, fire or drought can make audiences aware of the severity of the problem. But fear-inducing imagery can also leave audiences with a feeling that nothing can be done. Photos of evidence-based responses, however, such as wind turbines or solar panels, can leave audiences with feelings of empowerment and personal agency.
One of my recently published research studies with colleagues at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication examined effects of audience exposure to problem-oriented versus solution-oriented photojournalism. As one example, we measured audience responses to a news story about addiction using problem-oriented photos of people injecting heroin with a needle as compared with solutions-oriented photos of a 12-step recovery meeting and a police officer holding a dose of naloxone. As another example, we compared reactions to photos of people sleeping on the street to solutions-oriented photos of a woman moving into an apartment and a row of tiny houses. Our study showed that audiences typically found the solutions photojournalism more engaging. And when audiences are more engaged through the visual solutions reporting, they experience and report more positive outcomes for dependent variables such as engagement with the story, interest in learning more and willingness to take action. This is a new area of research, so while the results are preliminary, they show promise.
Again, we absolutely need photos of problems. But when there is evidence that a response to a problem may be working, show us that story, too. Audiences are demonstrating engagement with visual solutions reporting — and this greater depth of engagement seems to facilitate higher levels of involvement and the desire to effect meaningful change. ■
Creating engagement with solutions visuals: Testing the effects of problem-oriented versus solution-oriented photojournalism
(Published in Visual Communication)
By Nicole Dahmen, Kathryn Thier and Brent Walth
Nicole Dahmen, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on ethical and technological issues in visual communication, with an emphasis on photojournalism in the digital age. She also has a special interest in contextual reporting, specifically solutions journalism. Dahmen’s research is published in such diverse and leading journals as American Behavioral Scientist, Journalism Studies, Digital Journalism and Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism.