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The Roles of Photojournalism in Contemporary Society

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Eva Yang

on 14 October 2013

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Transcript of The Roles of Photojournalism in Contemporary Society

The Roles of Photojournalism
in Contemporary Society

Starting from underlying motives…
As news readers, we expect that news we read is a reflection of truth and reality. However, news producers do not do things in that way. Governed by “the ruling class” and a profit motive, mass media primarily serves to preserve social order and to maximize profits. Evidence can be observed from proliferation of advertisements, overemphasis of politics and business, and overlook of public interests. Therefore, driven by this idea, photojournalism in modern society has the following three roles: story teller, image manipulator, and emotion communicator.

In this presentation, we will utilize organizational analysis to discuss the above three roles of photojournalism. Then we will analyze each role by focusing on its causes, potential problems, and possible consequences.

Telling a story…
According to Frank Hoy, a photojournalism professor, the aim of the photojournalist is to make viewers quickly understand a situation by communicating a clear message (Schwartz, n.d.). This guarantees that photojournalism should have a storytelling attribute.

Storytelling is a way of conveying events in words and images. In the context of photojournalism, storytelling means that by merely looking at a news picture, readers can get a general sense of the contents of the news. Then readers will make a quick judgement about whether to go into linguistic part of the news based on attractiveness level of that picture. For example, when the picture (displayed on the right) is shown in a newspaper (“Police probe Capitol car chase that ends with driver shot dead,” n.d.), we can immediately visualize ourselves into a car crash accident. If we take a closer look, we observe that it is not a common car crash – it is a police car who got smashed. Curiosity may trigger us to dig more details about this news. This is how effect of storytelling takes place. Nevertheless, there are some potential problems associated with storytelling function of photojournalism.

Potential problems of storytelling
To a large extent, information could be dramatized to serve storytelling function. Drama is an important element of stories because drama tends to grab viewers’ attention, provoke emotional response and legitimize the utility of visual presentations (Schwartz, n.d.). Therefore, photojournalists frequently focus on the most sensational and shocking appearance of a story, rather than performing a logical analysis. However, since some issues are difficult to visualize and demands accurate analysis, their dramatization leads to inaccurate or misunderstanding reporting (Ott & Mack, 2010). Take the above car crash photo for instance, some viewers may only concentrate on the dramatic scene of the accident instead of considering social causes behind it.
Image manipulation …
The second role associated with photojournalism is defined as image manipulator. News photographs are socially constructed artifacts, their appearances are shaped by the institutional context of mass media organizations (Schwartz, n.d.). In this sense, images created by photojournalists must be aligned with organizational culture. In order to do so, photojournalists need to be able to manipulate pictures in some way to express a point of view.

Through creative application of photography techniques, photojournalists are able to offer viewers a vision of the world. Let’s considering the following example (“BlackBerry buyout could get boost with $500-million tax refund,” n.d.). By applying “rule of thirds”, the photojournalist has chosen both BlackBerry logo and Canada flag as the “center of interest”. Associated with storytelling property, the photojournalist is trying to convey the message that Canadian government is saving BlackBerry from bankruptcy. While photojournalists are able to utilize image manipulation to impose personal stances and unique attitudes towards a subject, image manipulation also poses some potential problems.

Photojournalism’s main responsibility is to engage and inform a non-specialized mass readership (Schwartz, n.d.). Photojournalism fulfills the responsibility through the interplay of storytelling, image manipulation and emotional communication. While potential problems are associated with each functionality of photojournalism, all three establish professionalization and conventions of photojournalism.
Potential problems of image manipulation
Information could be biased since photojournalists are trying to persuade viewers to recognize and accept an opinion or an attitude. This significantly restricts the creation of diverse opinions among the public. Take the above picture for instance, this photo is intended to demonstrate authority-disorder bias with Canadian government being the authority and financial crisis being the disorder. Authority-disorder bias greatly influences people’s independent thinking process since the authority takes center stage to interpret events for us. As manipulated images make us hard to "think outside the box", this bias also lays the ground for gatekeeping and agenda-setting function of news media.

Now, let's turn our attention to another important functionality of photojournalism - emotional communication.
Communicating emotions …

Photography operates at the level of emotional response, good photography are said to “grab at the heartstrings of the reader” (Schwartz, n.d.). Photojournalism values emotional impact because emotions create a sense of attachment. When people feel emotionally attached to something, they can easily and impulsively be influenced by that thing. Photojournalism, therefore, utilizes this method to gain persuasive power and to increase involvement level of viewers.

Photojournalists are instructed to seek out opportunities to represent the affective dimensions of news stories, personalizing the news and triggering readers’ identification and empathy (Schwartz, n.d.). Let’s consider the following example (“Native groups press for public inquiry on missing women with day of demonstrations,” n.d.). When we see a woman crying, most of us would feel emphatically concerned by sharing the same emotions with that lady. This vividly demonstrates how emotions come into play in the photojournalism. By focusing on the human side of reporting, photojournalism can provoke emphatic impact on its viewers. Nevertheless, the emotion aspect of photojournalism challenges codes of objectivity.
Potential problems of emotional communication
Photos with emotional attachment are claimed to be personalized. This means that news stories subjectively favor individuals over institutions, emotional impact over social structures (Ott & Mack, 2010). Consequently, viewers are more likely to blame a specific person for social ills and neglect underlying factors and root causes of social problems (Ott & Mack, 2010). Furthermore, emotional focus of photojournalism also encourages increasing emergence of soft news, which is high in entertainment value but low in educational value.
Yiwen (Eva) Yang
October 4, 2013

BlackBerry buyout could get boost with $500-million tax refund. (n.d.). The Globe and Mail. Retrieved October 4, 2013, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/blackberry-buyout-could-get-boost-with-500-million-tax-refund/article14693279/

Native groups press for public inquiry on missing women with day of demonstrations. (n.d.). The Globe and Mail. Retrieved October 4, 2013, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/native-groups-press-for-public-inquiry-on-missing-women/article14697288/

Ott, B. L., & Mack, R. L. (2010). Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. John Wiley & Sons.

Police probe Capitol car chase that ends with driver shot dead. (n.d.). The Globe and Mail. Retrieved October 4, 2013, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/reports-of-multiple-gunshots-on-capitol-hill-in-washington/article14681173/

Schwartz, D. (n.d.). To tell the truth : codes of objectivity in photojournalism. Communication, 13(2), 95–109.

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