9 – Writing and Images
Old line writing teachers like me were content with leaving photojournalism to photojournalists and those skilled enough to teach that topic. Besides, photojournalism was a separate sphere of journalism, and when I was working with newspapers, a photojournalist wouldn’t let a reporter even touch any of the photo equipment. Photojournalism instructors were almost as touchy — although all were terribly nice folks.
Those days are gone. We do our students a disservice, I think, by pretending otherwise. We should be introducing students to the many ways in which they can gather and distribute news and information and to the proper use of tools that they have at their disposal. Those tools, as we have said many times throughout the text, instructor’s manual, website and elsewhere are text, images, audio and video.
The key concept that you should convey to your students is information. Text is still the primary means of distributing information, but photos and images are important tools in this regard, too. A good photo should tell the view something, not just serve as non-text illustration.
Another major point of this chapter is the broad definition of images. We’re not just taking about photographs here, and if a student’s understanding is limited to just that, we have failed. An image is not text, and it is static (that is, not video). In a practical sense, we are talking about charts and graphs, and students need to understand how to use these for journalistic purpose — the kinds of information necessary for a good chart and the rules governing the construction of charts and graphs.
Key terms and concepts
Rule of thirds. This is a key photographic concept that helps us get away from the tendency to center every subject or interesting thing in a photograph.
Decisive moment. This concept is one that says to the photograph, “Be ready — and know what you are looking for.”
Three types of shots. The three types of photos are based on how far away the photographer is from the subject: establishing shots, mid-range shots and closeups. Students should know the differences among the three and should understand why each is important. Beginning photographers often feel self-conscious about what they are doing and believe they will irritate their subjects if they get to close. They should work to overcome those feelings.
Cutlines. Cutlines are sometimes hard to construct, but they are very important. Photographers do not always have to write the cutlines for their pictures (although they should do so whenever they get the chance). They should always gather the information needed for a cutline, including the names (spelled correctly) of the people visible in their photos.
Simplicity. This is a graphic concept that means essentially what it does in writing. A graph should contain only the lines that are necessary to convey the information. No more and no less.
The iconic image. Few of us get to leave the impression that Joe Rosenthal did. Rosenthal was the 33-year-old Associated Press photographer who took the picture of Marines raising the flag during the fierce battle of Iwo Jima in the Pacific in 1945. That image struck an instant chord with viewers, and it has been stuck in our consciousness ever since. It has been reproduced millions of times in many forums and is the basis for the giant Marine memorial that overlooks the nation’s capital. Rosenthal was an excellent photographer during his entire career —not just a guy with a camera at the right place and time. He died at the age of 94. (Take a look at this retrospective at Poynter.)
Telling the truth. Daniel Okrent, the public editor of the New York Times, has wrote an excellent piece in 2005 based on the decision by Times editors to run a picture of a grieving mother among a number of babies killed by the Dec. 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The photo is graphic and difficult to look at. It is like many such photos that have burned themselves into our psyches.
The surpassing power of pictures enables them to become the permanent markers of enormous events. The marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima, the South Vietnamese general shooting his captive at point-blank range, the young John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s passing coffin: each is the universal symbol for a historical moment. You don’t need to see them to see them.
But Okrent goes beyond the decision to run the photo to talk about pictures themselves. Under the provocative headline “No Picture Tells the Truth. The Best Do Better Than That,” Okrent discusses the fact that no picture captures the entire event of which it is part. A picture can tell part of the truth, but not the whole truth. Editors know that. Readers and viewers should recognize it, too.
News photos you can use. If you are interested in having timely photos for your publication or web site — but can’t afford to subscribe to a professional news service — you can find them at a variety of sites. One iswww.deenselink. mil, which posts photos from many of the military’s operations, including combat in Iraq. These photos can be downloaded in a high-resolution format, so they can be used for print publications. Not only can many of these photos be dramatic, such as they one shown here, they come with full cutline information. Because these photographs are produced by the military (an arm of the government), they are in the public domain and can be used without permission. Remember: You should never use a photograph, drawing or other illustration unless it is in the public domain or unless you have specific permission from the owner to do so. Posting an item on a website does not put it in the public domain. Be very careful about this.
National News Photographers Association. For those interested in photojournalism, this is one of the best organizations to be affiliated with. Visit the organization’s web site and find out what’s required to join. You’ll also find a lot more there.
Tips for beginning graphics journalists. Students who are learning about charts and how to produce them should remember the following:
• Study charts that have been professionally produced by newspapers or news websites. The Associated Press has a graphics department that produces many charts used by newspapers every day. Look closely at the way they are put together.
• Don’t try to put too much data in a chart. A line chart should not have more than three lines of data. A pie chart should not have more than six or seven sections at most.
• Use an explainer box to help the reader understand the chart. An explainer box is the text under the headline.
• Try to keep the idea of a chart — what you are attempting to show — as simple as possible.
Data is plural. The word “data” is a plural noun and should have a plural verb. The word “media” is plural also.
Math. Many journalists say (sometimes jokingly, sometimes not) that they got into the profession because they would not have to deal with a lot of math. For most working reporters, however, that turns out not to be the case. They have to deal with math every day. A good reporter should know how to figure a ratio, an average, a median and a percentage. Here are some web sites that will help you out:
• University of North Carolina math competency test for journalists
• Poynter.org: Why Math Matters by Chip Scanlan (with additional links)
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