Photography captures reality.
Or does it?
Yes, a high-quality photograph that follows my 25 rules of photo composition can be a major asset for your multimedia journalism report.
But a photograph is not necessarily objective reality. Why?
As you edit the photograph, you are making editorial decisions: What part of the photo is most important or newsworthy? (That is different than editing decisions based on attractiveness.)
Here are two examples: One benign, one politically charged.
I took the first photo in my final day on the White House beat, Sept. 2, 2013. It shows House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi speaking to a group of reporters outside the West Wing entrance (also known as “the Stakeout”). The second photo is a wedding snapshot featuring Bill and Hillary Clinton at Donald Trump’s most recent wedding.
The Trump-Clinton wedding photo is fraught with political overtones. Some of Trump’s 2016 Republican presidential campaign rivals would like to remind voters of his bipartisan past and his longtime coziness with the Clintons. The unedited photo is incontrovertible evidence that the two families were close enough that they were all smiles together in the not-so-distant past.
By focusing on Donald and Hillary, the photo editor chooses to highlight the 2016 rivalry, without the spouses. It’s Hillary vs. Donald. All smiles then. All insults now.
By editing out the Trumps, this is an unexceptional photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton smiling for the cameras. Little news value.
By editing out Donald and Hillary, the photo focuses on Bill Clinton with his arm around an attractive woman. Her left hand touches his, prompting the viewer to reach her/his own conclusion about the body chemistry.
The takeaway lesson: When you are editing photos for content, think about how your cropping decisions change the meaning of the image in the eyes of your audience. Are you sending the message you want to send? Are you fairly reflecting reality? Are you being fair to the subjects in the photo?
If you are a professional photo editor, the answer to all of the questions should be yes.
Every year, the Pulitzer Prizes celebrate some of the world’s best journalism. Just hours after the 2015 Pulitzer winners were announced, my Global Business Journalism Program was fortunate to play host to a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for photography. Larry C. Price, a University of Texas graduate who won the Pulitzer while working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Philadelphia Inquirer, dazzled my Multimedia Reporting and Data Journalism students with tales from his latest project, a multi-year investigation into the use of child labor in gold mining. His work — entitled “Tarnished” — was published in eBook form by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
Here are ten tips I culled from Larry’s lectures and the subsequent Q-and-A period. They are not a definitive list of “ten top tips.” They are just a collection of tips that I hope will be useful as you attempt to improve your photographic skills.
1. Always remember that you’re a storyteller.
Whatever publishing platform you’re on, and whatever visual medium you’re using, journalism is always about one thing. “It’s all about the stories,” Larry says. “Stories are as old as language. They’re everywhere. And journalism tells them.”
2. Look for something new — or a new take on an old image.
“Find something that hasn’t been done,” Larry says. “Or find a different spin on it.”
He says colleagues have sometimes discouraged him from shooting certain images, saying, “it’s been done.”
“My response is, ‘I haven’t done it,'” he says. “If somebody’s told the story, tell it differently.”
His example: a recent trip to Paris and a photo shoot at the Eiffel Tower.
3. Get up early. Stay late.
Larry doesn’t use artificial lighting. As a result, he is looking for the best natural light available. “If you want your multimedia productions to look good, shoot them early in the morning or a few minutes before sunset,” he says.
That means long days of work and short nights of sleep.
4. Get close.
Every photographer has her or his own signature. For Larry, it’s close-ups. “I love tight facial portraits,” he said. “Force yourself to get close.”
Another favorite subject for his close-ups: “Hands and feet. That’s what it’s all about.”
5. Get personal.
To make a subject comfortable with you — especially if you are going to shove your camera into their face — is to develop a personal relationship with them. “I spend a lot of time getting rapport established before I take out a camera,” Larry says. “I develop that rapport so it doesn’t get uncomfortable to your subject.”
Of course, you can’t always do this when news is breaking, but it can help improve your image if you have a bit of time to prepare.
6. Keep shooting.
“When I’m in the field, it’s constant activity,” Larry says. “Digital allows you to shoot, review, delete a lot.” Don’t let your guard down when you’re on duty: You never know when the next great photo opportunity might come. “You can’t ever relax,” he says. “It’s a never-ending cycle of feeling guilty.”
On his most recent trip to Burkina Faso, Larry returned with 37,000 frames. “I always have a lot of failures,” he notes. “I shoot a lot of pictures.”
7. Minimize your vertical shots.
Horizontal photographs work best on digital platforms, whether that’s a mobile device or a computer. And if you’re taking video, make sure it’s horizontal. “Never shoot vertical video,” warns Larry. “It’s useless. Half your space is wasted.” He rarely takes vertical stills, except for portraits. But he likes the square format popularized by Instagram. “Square is a very good portrait format — a little more artsy,” he says.
8. Stay natural.
Great photographers don’t cheat with editing programs that alter reality. “I don’t do a lot of Photoshop with my pictures,” he said. “I don’t exaggerate the colors or anything.”
9. Take good notes.
You need to have the spelling of names, correct ages and the locations of cities or villages. Larry always uses two notebooks. He also records the GPS coordinates of everything.
10. One old-fashioned photo composition rule.
“Don’t ever put people in the middle of the frame,” he says.
Journalism ethics are universal. But some ethical issues take on an added dimension on multimedia platforms.
After spending nearly two decades in digital journalism — writing an online column for BusinessWeek, creating two blogs and teaching multimedia journalism — I have boiled down my advice for my Tsinghua University Global Business Journalism students to ten commandments. Here they are:
•1. Thou shalt not steal
- Don’t lift other people’s posts. Or quotations. Or photographs.
- Intellectual property is intellectual property. If you don’t have the right to reproduce a photo or an article – even with attribution – don’t do it!
- Make sure to properly attribute any quotation you pull from another source. Every single time!
- If the original published source of your item turns out to be incorrect, you can be held liable for civil penalties in courts of law if you republish the falsehood.
•2. Thou shalt get it right.
- 24/7 deadlines are no excuse to get it wrong.
- Carefully attribute all facts you cannot confirm.
- Just because somebody else published it on the Internet or sent it out by social media doesn’t make it true.
- Just because somebody told you something doesn’t make it true. As the old journalism saying goes, even if your mother told you, check it out.
- Better to wait a few minutes to confirm or disprove a post than to get it wrong, wrong, wrong.
- As the Pew Research Journalism Project wrote: “Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built.”
•3. Thou shalt repent with speed and sincerity.
- If you get something wrong, or link to another source who got it wrong, make sure you correct the mistake. Pronto. Your credibility is on the line.
- Make sure to send corrections to your followers via social media. Falsehoods can go viral and it’s very hard to reel them back in.
- If you made a mistake and others linked to your post, inform them of your mistake. Pronto.
- Learn from your mistake.
- Because of the instantaneous nature of digital communication, correcting errors is more important – and difficult — than ever.
•4. Thou shalt avoid gratuitous personal attacks.
- Multimedia journalism provides you a basketful of communications options. Don’t use them to be childish, petulant or rude.
- The same rules of fair play apply online as apply in traditional media.
- Don’t mistake “snark” and “attitude” for wit and cleverness.
•5. Thou shalt be fair and balanced.
- It’s not a partisan slogan. It’s our goal as journalists.
- Fairness should never be sacrificed at the altar of an artificial deadline.
- Efforts should be made to contact public figures referred to or criticized in multimedia reports.
- Avoid sensationalism or distortion that is designed to win you “clicks” or “page views.”
- A few tips from the Society of Professional Journalists:
- “Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.”
- “Never distort the content of news photos or video.”
•6. Thou shalt not use unnamed sources to attack others.
- It’s a sure sign of a journalism amateur or poseur.
- People have a right to know who your sources are, with rare exceptions.
- People have a right to know your sources’ motives.
- If someone is too cowardly to attach their name to an attack quote, it tells you something about the person.
- As SPJ writes, “The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.”
•7. Thou shalt live in a glass house.
- Don’t do anything you would criticize someone else for doing.
- Journalists are public figures. Hypocrisy is news, whether the hypocrite is a politician or a reporter.
- From National Public Radio’s Ethics Handbook: •“We hold those who serve and influence the public to a high standard when we report about their actions. We must ask no less of ourselves.”
•8. Thou shalt never give false witness about who you are.
- It is always unethical to pose as someone else to collect information for stories.
- You should identify who you are and for whom you work.
- You should never identify yourself simply as a “citizen,” a “constituent” or a “consumer.”
9. Thou shalt not pay sources for information.
- Or interviews.
- It’s unethical. It separates infotainment sites from journalism sites. Let TMZ.com get the paid-for celebrity scandal scoop. Better to keep your soul.
•10. Thou shalt not be paid off.
- Don’t take money to post, publish or air something.
- Don’t show favoritism toward sponsors, advertisers or donors.
- Disclose any conflicts of interest you or your publication may have.
- Transparency allows your audience to weigh your credibility.
As SPJ’s code of ethics declares, “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”
We owe it to the public. And ourselves.
I continue today with another edition of Rick’s Rules, my lists of professional development suggestions for journalism students and veteran journalists alike.
TOP TEN TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE INTERVIEWING
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
There is no substitute for adequate preparation — and no excuse for “winging it” in an interview. You should become an expert on the interview subject and the subject matter. If you show that you know your stuff, you are more likely to gain the respect and confidence of the interviewee.
2. Choreograph the interview in advance.
Plan out what you hope to accomplish and the series of questions that will get you from Point A to Point Z. Also plan out what you will do if the interviewee tries to hijack the interview. (See below.)
A major mistake made by reporters is that they don’t pay attention to what the interviewee is saying; they just wait to ask the next question on their list. It’s very, very important to listen attentively. Your interview subject may tell you something that leads to a valuable new avenue of questioning.
4. Follow up.
Persistence usually pays off. If somebody tries to evade your question, try again. Depending on the situation, you can decide whether to rephrase the question or simply tell them that they haven’t answered the question. If your interview subject is evading the question, you want to let them know that you know that they aren’t answering.
5. Word your questions carefully.
You don’t want a “yes” or “no” answer, especially for audio or video. Ask a question in a manner designed to elicit a descriptive answer. It is embarrassing when you look at your notebook after an interview and you see that the answer you wrote down was “no” rather than “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
6. Know when to be the tiger and when to be the fox.
It’s important to gauge the personality of your interview subject and know when to be aggressive, when to be empathetic and when to admit your ignorance. Doing the right thing at the right time can pay off — big time. Doing the wrong thing can ruin an interview.
6. Don’t assume anything.
Ask Ms. Smith how to spell her name. It might be “Smythe.” Ask for job titles and spellings of home towns, spouses and employers’ names (if you are not certain). When possible, it’s good to double-check via a Google search to confirm on their personal or business web sites.
7. Know your subject material and don’t fake it.
You are supposed to be prepared. Remember that. But if you don’t know something, admit it. Don’t say that you’ve read a book — or a report, or an article — if you haven’t. If the interview subject believes you are fudging, it harms your credibility.
8. Don’t let the interview get hijacked.
When your interviewee says “that’s a good question, but the important point is….,” he or she is trying to change the subject and deliver a pre-packaged spin. Make sure to return as soon as possible to the questions you want to ask.
9. Don’t talk too much.
If you have a 15-minute interview, you want almost all of it to come from the mouth of your interview subject. Don’t go off on tangents or monologues. Don’t engage in too much chit chat before you get to your questions, unless you have plenty of time for the interview.
10. Appearances matter.
Look and sound professional. Don’t dress inappropriately or chew gum. Don’t smell of smoke or alcohol. It may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many reporters mess up their interview before uttering their first word.
With this post, I am introducing a regular feature to RickDunhamBlog: Rick’s Rules.
Rick’s Rules will highlight best and worst practices in modern multimedia journalism and offer tips to improve your skills — whether you are one of my graduate journalism students at Tsinghua University, a veteran journalist in Washington, D.C., or a normal everyday “civilian.”
I also will try to experiment with innovative storytelling techniques. Today’s “Rick’s Rules” uses infogr.am.
UPDATE: Due to technical difficulties on the WordPress site, I am forced to link to the graphic on infogr.am. Please follow this link to the graphic.