Joyce Terhaar

We all lose when journalists lose access

In the image, Spencer Stone stands flanked by his medical team at UC Davis Medical Center, all three of them posed with grins on their faces, Stone still dressed in a mint green hospital gown.

It’s the type of picture that fills many personal photo collections, a pose-and-say-cheese image. The photos, taken and released by public relations staff, are the only documentation of Stone’s recovery from an attack in midtown. At the request of Stone and the military, no media were granted access to Stone at the hospital, nor given the customary head’s up when he was released.

Stone has become a celebrity since his heroism aboard a French train thwarted a terrorist attack in August. And – as in this case – celebrities sometimes work hard to avoid the public eye. But efforts to forestall media attention or to release a controlled message leave us all a little bit poorer and a little less connected to our community.

How difficult would it have been to set up a pool situation, in which one professional journalist is given access to photograph the subject and share with all other media? The photos shared would have reflected a real moment.

We published the handout photo for lack of another image in an important local story, that of Stone’s stabbing in a public and often crowded part of midtown during a brawl. That set off a conversation within our newsroom about quality and standards. Publishing a handout photo is in some ways similar to publishing a press release, which we don’t do. It’s a polished or limited message to the public from one point of view. And, often, it’s just not very interesting.

Last weekend top editors and academics from across the country gathered at Stanford University to focus on the future of journalism in an ASNE-APME conference themed “3-D: Digital, Diversity, Disruption.” There I heard Sara Quinn, journalism consultant and researcher, highlight findings from an Eyetracking Photojournalism study completed for the National Press Photographers Association and released earlier this year.

In addition to the technical work tracking eye movements of participants, Quinn talked to 52 people at the University of Minnesota and asked them what made a photograph worth publishing. This is what she wrote in her findings: “Quality matters, they said. And quality in photojournalism is all about strength of story, a genuine moment, rare access and a perspective on what’s happening in the world.”

90% The percentage of photos correctly identified by participants in research at the University of Minnesota as either professional or amateur

Access is crucial and not something guaranteed to the media. Across the newsroom, reporters and editors are regularly battling efforts to control the media and the message it publishes, whether in text or images. To gain access.

“Access to elected officials has steadily declined in the past 10 years,” Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Smith said. “More lawmakers at the Capitol decline to speak with reporters directly, opting instead for canned, largely non-responsive and self-serving written statements prepared by their communications staff or political consultants.”

City Editor Kevin Yamamura, who spent many years as a reporter in the Capitol Bureau, said restricted access became pervasive during the Schwarzenegger administration. “The practices seem to have been widely adopted by PR professionals on all levels as a way to control the narrative. And those practices have extended to photos.”

That held true last week when mayoral candidate Angelique Ashby announced her campaign and provided us with a polished handout photo of herself apparently in front of the state Capitol.

“She’s a hard person to photograph, kind of like Hillary Clinton,” said Sue Morrow, deputy director of multimedia. “Still pictures often capture weird expressions, and you want to be fair” about how we portray people.

Still, the photo Ashby provided is “great for her campaign sign,” Morrow said, not for a news report.

One of the biggest problems with handout photos is that we do not always know if they have been staged or altered.

52 The number of research participants interviewed in the University of Minnesota Eyetracking Photojournalism study

“I talked to a winery in Paso Robles today. They said they might be busy when the photographer arrives, but they offered to stage something. That’s my concern – is it real? Is it staged?” Morrow said. Such doctoring of supposedly documentary photography threatens journalism, which seeks to portray what happened, not what news subjects might wish happened.

When reporter Tony Bizjak and photographer Hector Amezcua recently toured Siemens for a story about efforts to build a bullet train manufacturing hub in Sacramento, company officials would not let Amezcua shoot the track built to test high speed trains. His photography was limited to workers welding and a handful of other images.

A customer’s rail cars were on those tracks, so Siemens instead offered handout photographs. We said no thanks.

The Sacramento Kings have an annual media day to grant access for interviews and photographs. At this year’s event, access was more restrictive as the NBA and other national groups taped off private space to record commercials and players showcasing moves in front of a green screen. When DeMarcus Cousins relaxed with animals from the Front Street Animal Shelter – a humanizing moment we normally would photograph – Amezcua said he was told he could not take pictures. Contrast that with recent access Amezcua received to the newest Kings player, Caron Butler, as he described his journey from the streets to the NBA. With that access, we provided readers and fans a compelling and personal story. Without access to Cousins and the animals, we could not.

The emotion in a quality photograph connects all of us. While we know this intuitively, Quinn’s research offers empirical evidence: Participants spent more time looking at professional photographs, were more likely to share them and talked about how their response differed from casual snapshots taken by the rest of us.

And, in a finding that media ought to take seriously, Quinn obtained feedback that bad quality makes a publisher less credible.

Journalists have an important stake in this debate as our credibility is in play, as is the engagement of our audience. You do too. Our photographers capture the essence of our community, whether we are watching the powerful, covering news, giving you an inside look at a company or capturing the myriad faces and voices that make up this region. Who loses when institutions work to control media coverage? We all do.

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