It started with an idea that was well-meaning and ended with a mea culpa when Jaymie Baxley heard from irritated photojournalists via social media on Tuesday.
Jaymie, a reporter for The Pilot in Southern Pines, North Carolina, tried to find a solution for the lack of visual reporting in small newsrooms by offering up his own editorial photographs on a website for free.
He explained to a reporter for Sizing up the South (a website “news magazine for journalists who serve the South”), how he wanted to help by creating a resource for reporters in small newsrooms that no longer have visual journalists. If you are one of those journalists who experience the wasteland of visual reportage in the workplace, it might seem like a good idea.
The NPPA became aware of the story on Tuesday. Full disclosure: my head wanted to pop off. Once again I was reading how “you, too, could use pictures for free.” I always hope that people finally understand that what photojournalists do – like reporters and graphic artists – is not free. Nothing is free. I took deep breaths to calm down because it’s not the NPPA’s intention to be a flame-thrower on social media.
And then I reread Jaymie’s message and understood clearly that he meant well and wanted to find a solution to the TRUE problem.
Quoted in the original story, Jaymie said, “I know a lot of reporters, especially in rural communities, [that] are expected to find images to accompany their articles. So these reporters, they work in newsrooms where they can’t afford to hire a photojournalist, they can’t afford to subscribe to a photography service, so they kind of have to figure that out on their own. Another thing I’ve noticed with small newspapers … is sharing articles on social media with images that were clearly yanked from Google Images, [maybe] without the photographer’s permission. And I do think that puts newspapers at risk of being accused of theft — you know, I do think that there is a liability there. Of course, there are options for Google free images, but when you’re reporting on something specific, something specific to the state, then I don’t think you have as many options.”
Jaymie and I talked on Wednesday and he said he was surprised by the response, which led him to take down the website with access to his photographs and issue a statement.
"I was surprised because it was interpreted as a threat [to others] and that was not my intention. I never presumed that file photographs of North Carolina buildings and politicians would replace the timely coverage provided by photojournalists. But what if I was a photojournalist and I got laid off and saw 'free photos'? I now see how that would be viewed as contributing to the larger problem."
The database was going to be only for North Carolina-centric stories and the photographs were Jaymie's. But the response speaks to the larger issue about the deep cuts in newsrooms and how the photographers have been the first to be laid off because our equipment is expensive.
"Photojournalists are an essential part of any news-gathering operation. They can’t be replaced with unskilled practitioners and their work shouldn’t be shoved off onto reporters," Jaymie said. “But many skeleton-crew newsrooms eliminated photography desks longs ago. Now reporters who don’t have formal training or the appropriate equipment must find an image to accompany every story because of the demand [for photography] on social media. I thought I would be helping [the situation] by making generic, teaser images available for reporters at rural papers who might otherwise grab a photojournalist’s work from Google images without giving credit or compensation, which is something I suspect happens a lot.”
We move forward through lessons learned.
The NPPA provides its members with legal and educational support. We choose to be an ally where we are needed most to provide essential understanding about what photojournalists need to do their jobs.
I want to be clear that I was no fan of the concept Jaymie Baxley was developing. But I give him credit for taking sharp criticism with grace, ultimately "deep-sixing" the project, and posting a message of solidarity with visual journalists (who have been disproportionately cut from American newsrooms).
There was no reason to think Jaymie intended to harm those of us who remain in photojournalism or twist the knife in those of us who don’t. But nevertheless, the service he was trying to get off the ground would have further devalued our craft. It also could have gotten him and others in some serious ethical and legal trouble. These are really important issues for us to discuss publicly as journalists. That’s our role at NPPA. We don’t exist to beat up on people. I’m sure Jaymie got more than his share of that already — I think some of it was overboard and unbecoming. NPPA’s strength is elevating conversations by providing information, context and cautions.
We need to start the conversation with a very basic — but key — premise: Photography is valuable.
For the most part, I think journalists who work in newsrooms understand this. They know that images drive audience engagement in print and online. Research shows that quality matters, that audiences can distinguish between professional and amateur images, and that they engage with professional photojournalism more. So, any argument that "readers can’t tell the difference" insults their intelligence as consumers of our journalism. Images for the sake of images reduces what we do to "window dressing" when, in fact, it is the window.
While journalists may understand this, I don’t believe all media companies do. That’s the distinction. There’s a growing unwillingness of American media companies to invest money in maintaining or growing the human and technological resources necessary to take great pictures of the world around us. It is precisely how we end up with scores of American newspapers today lacking a single photojournalist. It’s how the ones that still do have photojournalists are shadows of what they once were in terms of staffing levels. It’s why there are dwindling budgets — or no budgets at all — for hiring freelancers. There’s no beating around the bush or suggesting alternatives here: Because photography has value, it requires investments.
The issue with sourcing images from people outside of one's newsroom is one of trust and legality. Photos are sometimes offered for free by people who don't have the legal right to distribute them. This has bitten plenty of news organizations, and they’ve been sued successfully for copyright infringement (seven-figure damages).
One also runs a much greater risk of obtaining an image that has been digitally manipulated, has an inaccurate or misleading caption, or passes-off a staged moment as genuine. Journalism is also, by its very nature, specific. Writers wouldn't use generic text in a story or insert quotes from an unrelated situation. Photos are equally specific to the context in which they were captured. To use them with an unrelated story can be confusing to the reader, misleading, unethical, or all of the above. It is critical to consider the interaction between an image and the written story. Not doing so can lead to false implications and could be grounds for defamation or false light claims.
Credibility is a news organization's single greatest asset, and we believe the cost of damage to its reputation is significantly higher than a budget for photography.
These are all concerns that Jaymie and his potential users would have had to weigh with each submission. Is this picture truthful and ethically sound? Does the person who submitted this picture have the legal ability to grant me and others permission to use it? That responsibility — to be a "gatekeeper" — is not to be taken lightly. It is an important component of what professional photo editors do every day. They are largely unsung heroes, and also dwindling at publications.
Ultimately, I think Jaymie understood our position: He wouldn’t have been helping the journalists. He’d have been helping the companies that refuse to pay for what’s valuable to them. And that hurts everybody.
Michael P. King
President; National Press Photographers Association