How can photojournalists build trust through their work? 7 good questions with T.J. Thomson

Thomson’s research examines how visual journalists can build trust with their subjects and audiences in the social media age.

In the social media age, we are inundated with visual information — yet we know very little about how and why these images are made, especially in journalistic contexts. This can be a huge barrier to establishing trust between visual journalists, their subjects, and the people who consume their work.

“There are 3.2 billion images produced around the globe every day but we know little about their back story, despite the fact that humans use 75% of the neurons in their brains to process visual stimuli,” says Dr. T.J. Thomson, a visual communications and media scholar at Queensland University of Technology. In his new book, “To Be and Be Seen: The Environments, Interactions and Identities Behind News Images,” Thomson examines how the production circumstances of news photographs can impact overall trust in media.

We asked Thomson how visual journalists and news organizations at large can build trust through more context and transparency around images, and better journalist-subject interactions.

What questions should journalists ask themselves to be sure they’re composing an honest, accurate image?

  • Is this image not only accurate (representing the environment and those in it with fidelity) but also context-rich? I give an example in my book of how Baghdad’s Firdos Square was visually framed during the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue. Some news outlets only used tight framing that seemed to show the area surrounding the statue filled with onlookers. Wider and more context-rich framing revealed how comparatively empty the overall plaza really was. We might want to fill the frame with our subject to increase its visual impact; however, by doing so, we might distort or provide a false perspective.
  • How representative is this person/scene/event of the norm and are there ways I could increase the image’s representativeness? Sometimes the person/scene/event is newsworthy because it’s not representative and is atypical in some way; however, when this isn’t the case, make every effort to understand and represent your subject in its most stable state and, if that’s not possible, be transparent about why not and what the deviation is. This requires a deep understanding of what is typical/normal for a person, environment, or event and might require revisiting a scene multiple times to ensure you know what is typical and to ensure the representation is fair. Not every story will require this but generally more in-depth profiles, features, and stories about identities and marginalized attributes warrant such additional care and investment. If you don’t have the time or resources to know whether something is representative, consider reaching out to locals or subject experts who can help you determine that.
  • Why this person for this story? Are you including them just because you need a human element for a general-interest story, or should the subject possess certain identity characteristics or attributes necessary to tell a story in a more nuanced fashion? Ask yourself how this issue, event, or person has been rendered historically and is there anything you can do to avoid shallow or stereotypical coverage.
  • Have I communicated in the caption or supplemental material any environmental conditions or technical decisions (use of long exposures, creative exposures, multiple exposures, etc.) that might alter how the image is understood, interpreted, and acted upon?

What questions do news consumers have about images they see in news media?

I think the issues of consent, permission, and privacy often come to mind when people see images in the news media, especially those that might depict people in vulnerable situations or when they are unaware.

I’ve encountered in my past experience as a journalist as well as in my academic research a fair bit of misunderstanding concerning media law and journalist’s obligations (if any) to ask for permission in certain spaces. Generally, journalists enjoy complete freedom to document events in public spaces provided the use is personal or editorial. The waters become muddied when identifiable features are introduced, when the use is commercial, and when the space is “public” in function but privately owned, such as some city open spaces, plazas, shopping malls, and the like.

Even though journalists have this freedom, visual depictions produced without interaction are bound to be shallow compared to those that were produced with interaction. Without a conversation, you’re much more likely to frame someone in a reductionist, shallow, stereotypical, or generic manner. Through dialogue, we understand why the subjects are where they are, doing what they are, and what the unfolding story means to them.

I also think people wonder about the particular angle or frame presented and what else the journalist could have or should have shown. Having multiple-image galleries can help with this, as can more immersive panorama, 360-degree imagery, or video footage. Not all these approaches will be relevant for all stories. Journalists are, after all, storytellers rather than archivers of unfiltered data. However, in some controversial scenes or situations, the additional context afforded by such approaches can be beneficial.

What can journalists do to proactively answer those questions?

A practical suggestion to proactively address questions of consent, permission, and privacy is to, whenever possible, include a quote from someone you’ve photographed or filmed. This implicitly demonstrates consent and indicates that a dialogue happened between the journalist and the person they documented. It also enriches the depiction and can contribute new knowledge to what we already know about that individual in question or the identity or organization they represent. Pairing a quote with a photo can be a great teaser into the article and can promote engagement and a hunger to learn more.

When candid depictions are necessary and a person has been depicted unawares, consider including an editor’s note on the accompanying story with a link to a media law primer or the outlet’s policy on consent and privacy.

Adding brief explainers or caveats — even small ones, such as, “It’s sometimes impossible to render the complexity of an event in a single photo. Click on the photo to see the full gallery of images from XYZ event” — to social media posts can help dispel claims that one photo “says it all” or to defuse allegations of bias.

What expectations do subjects have of the journalists they interact with and how images of themselves are used by news outlets?

When interacting with visual journalists, participants in my study named several expectations they had of the journalists: that they should 1) blend into the background, 2) have some sort of interaction, often in the form of a dialogue, with the people they document, 3) ask for permission of those they document, 4) respect those they photograph or video-record, 5) publish content whenever subject-journalist interaction takes place, and 6) put their subjects at ease.

The most dominant of the expectations concerning the resulting visuals was that they should reflect the scene accurately. Interestingly, only one participant mentioned aesthetically pleasing visuals as an expectation they had of photojournalists. Photo editors and publishers, too, appreciate how well-crafted visuals can arrest and engage an audience. However, for those who find themselves in front of a journalist’s lens, the treatment they received from the journalist and the journalist’s behavior were more important to them than were the aesthetics of the depictions they produced.

Why do people sometimes feel wronged by the way images of themselves were used in news media?

People disliked when images of themselves were used in the news media with little, poor, or inaccurate context. For example, one of my participants, a 45-year-old white man who works as a park development supervisor with the city government, complained that the journalist’s choice of angle and focal length depicted him as being nearly alone in the frame when he was, in reality, surrounded by many others. “The photo doesn’t really show the number of people — it almost looks like it was a one-on-one meeting and it was more than that. That would be my first reaction. The context isn’t great.”

Other negative reactions stemmed from caption errors such as name misspellings or misidentifications, distracting behavior by the journalist, or whom a journalist chose to visually feature.

The issue of privacy also emerged for people who participated in largely noncontroversial, public community events. Fewer than 10% of the events I observed for my study could be classified as potentially controversial. However, a retired K-12 school administrator also raised the issue of privacy while being photographed as a patron in a coffee shop for a simple story about the business’s 25th anniversary. So, if privacy concerns arose even in seemingly innocuous circumstances, they would likely be even more important in more volatile situations, such as emergency response, accidents, domestic abuse, end-of-life care, conflict, and war.

When working with a subject who has never or rarely interacted with a journalist, how can the photographer ensure they have a good experience?

One of my participants was in exactly that situation. She reflected:

“She (the photographer) did state when she was there that they don’t like people smiling and performing so just be natural. . . . Her articulating what her role is and what she’s trying to do also, I think, puts people at ease, so we know exactly what’s going on.”

For me, one takeaway from this anecdote is how different being in front of a journalist’s lens is to being documented in other contexts. Posing and directly engaging with the camera are common with selfies and casual snapshots that most people take in their day-to-day lives, but rare in journalistic contexts (barring portraiture), due to the profession’s conventions. It’s up to journalists to establish clear expectations with those they photograph or film.

How can photojournalists establish trust if events are unfolding fast and there’s not much time for getting to know each other?

If journalists promise to send a link or a copy of the image or story to their subjects but don’t, that obviously erodes trust. So does treating subjects as a means to an end and only interacting with them up until the story publishes.

Ideally, journalists are operating in communities where they are established, active, and engaged members and enjoy the benefits of full-time staff positions so that they have time and resources to develop contacts and sources, establish their reputations, and face accountability for their actions. The current freelancer-heavy market in the U.S., however, makes it more difficult to have sustained relationships with editors and sources alike. Reliance on the freelancer system encourages journalists parachuting in and out of situations and incentivizes only the end product rather than the interaction and circumstances that lead to the end product.