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What do newspapers lose when they use non-professional photography?

Photojournalists have not fared well in recent years. In some newsrooms, entire photojournalism staffs have been eliminated.

Publishers concerned about the bottom line may reason that photojournalism is a dying art. After all, smartphones are abundant and can be used to create high-quality images. But are photos from non-professionals as compelling as those produced by professional photojournalists? Not according to new research from Tara Mortensen, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, and Peter Gade, professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Mortensen and Gade analyzed photos from the Middletown, N.Y., Times Herald-Record; comparing 488 photos placed in the newspaper and credited to professionals to 409 photos appearing from non-professionals.

Photos taken by professional photojournalists are “graphically appealing,” “emotional” and “intimate,” while photos taken by non-professionals tend to be “informational.”

The Times Herald-Record presents an important case study. In 2013, the paper laid off its entire photography staff. Although the paper continued to use professional wire-service photos, the percentage of non-professional photos appearing in the printed version increased from 19 percent to 33 percent in the six months before and after the change.

Mortensen and Gade categorized the professional and non-professional photos on a continuum from informational to intimate:

  1. Informational — photos that provide information, like a mug shot, but “lack emotion or creativity”
  2. Graphically appealing — photos that are “taken at angles or perspectives that make them aesthetically interesting”
  3. Emotionally appealing — photos that convey “the human element of subjects”
  4. Intimate — photos that achieve a “private connection with the viewer.”

According to this rating scale, informational photos are the most routine and commonly used, and intimate photos are the rarest and most exceptional.

The results showed that non-professionals were far more likely to take informational photos than were professional photojournalists. Just over eight in 10 non-professional photos were informational, while just under half (49 percent) of the professional photos were informational.

Around a quarter of the professional photos qualified as emotionally and graphically appealing, while only one in 10 non-professional photos achieved this designation. None of the non-professional photos was considered intimate, while 2 percent of the professional photos were.

Professional Non-professional
Intimate 1.8% 0%
Emotional 25.4% 10.3%
Graphically appealing 23.6% 7.6%
Informational 49.2% 82.2%

The differences did not stop there. Professional photos were more likely to show action and depict conflict, two qualities known to increase audience attention, compared to non-professional photos.

Professional Non-professional
Action 62.9% 32.5%
Conflict 22.1% 13.2%

Interestingly, the professional photos were more prominently placed in the Times Herald-Record than the non-professional photos. Sixty-seven percent of professional photos appeared above the fold, or the center point, compared to 58 percent of non-professional photos.

Although Mortensen and Gade’s research suggests that differences between professional and non-professional photos exist, we need more research to understand why. One possibility is that professional photographers approach photography differently as a result of their training.

Another possibility is that professional photographers take pictures of different events than non-professionals. In the Mortensen and Gade data, for instance, 77 percent of non-professional photos were local, compared to 29 percent for professionals.

Perhaps the photo qualities differed because the professional photographers had more compelling subject matter. When I posed this question to Mortensen, she thought that it was possible, but noted that newsrooms are “becoming more willing to place an only somewhat-related photo with a rather compelling text-based topic.”

Mortensen and Gade’s study, published in the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, the flagship journal of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), shows that professional photojournalists matter, even in the age of smartphones. When newsrooms eliminate their photojournalism staff, it seems, they also eliminate a compelling component of news.

Next steps

Following up on this research, scholars and newsrooms could work together to:

    • Examine the impact of different news photos. For instance, a newsroom could have a professional and a non-professional take photos for a story. They could then conduct an A/B test to determine which photo performs better in terms of drawing traffic. After several iterations, this could provide data on the value of professional photographers to the newsroom.
    • Identify the characteristics of individuals who take the “best” news photographs, including their professional training.

Citation

Mortensen, T., & Gade, P. (in press). Does photojournalism matter? News image content and presentation in the Middletown (NY) Times Herald-Record before and after layoffs of the photojournalism staff. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

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