We try to make staged photos clear to readers

karen.peterson@thenewstribune.comMarch 24, 2013 

Faking a documentary news photo would be an affront to our journalism ethics.

But sometimes when we’re not present for a news event, we go back to shoot a portrait of the people involved as a way to add another layer of information. We try to send visual and written cues to help readers understand the difference between the two approaches, but last week we fell short with at least one reader.

Page A3 of Wednesday’s News Tribune included a story about owners of boats moored under the recently refurbished Murray Morgan Bridge. They were complaining about metal pieces falling from the bridge that stained and damaged their vessels. Alongside the story was a picture of boat owner Jason Brinar standing on his boat in front of a rust-stained deck he said was caused by the falling debris. On the deck were some curly metal shavings.

A reader from Auburn emailed me to say the photograph reminded him of an ethical slip decades ago by broadcasters who “staged dishonest crash tests of a GM pickup.”

The reader doubted the “strategically placed drill shavings” and pointed out that the rust marks on the boat deck weren’t adjacent to the shavings. The photograph, in fact, was a staged portrait.

The shavings were real — among those collected by boat owners as evidence to show insurance adjusters. The TNT photographer set up the photograph to include the shavings — placed there for the picture — with the rust stains, the boat deck, the boat owner and the bridge in the distance behind him.

The perfect framing, along with what TNT photo editor Joe Barrentine called the subject’s “camera awareness,” were visual cues to the reader that the photo was staged. We didn’t just happen upon Brinar standing on his boat, but rather were trying to display a number of visual elements to help the reader understand the story.

Photographers measure “camera awareness” by how deliberately the subject is looking at the camera. In this case, Brinar’s eyes are locked on it.

In a documentary or live news photo, subjects are busy doing whatever they’re doing, and we catch them in action.

In fact, Barrentine said, photographers going through a series of shots from a live news event discard photos in which the subject is looking at the camera. The best documentary pictures occur when the subject is oblivious and caught up in the action.

Documentary journalism prohibits a photographer from staging an event or asking a subject to do something for the sake of the picture. The sports photo on today’s front page is a good example. Gonzaga played a basketball game, and the photographer was there to capture the action. Gonzaga wasn’t playing so the photographer could get a good picture.

Pictures we ran last week of suspects in court also were documentary. Our photographer didn’t ask subjects to pose for the camera. He captured what was going on in the courtroom.

Conversely, a photograph we ran on Friday’s front page about a proposed new building in the Proctor neighborhood showed six neighboring business owners standing in a parking lot looking directly into the camera.

We didn’t walk by and find them doing that. The photo obviously was staged for the story.

Most of the time, readers understand that intuitively. However, in the case of the metal shavings, we could have done a better job in the photo caption of telling readers they were placed there for the photograph.

Thanks to our reader for pointing it out.


A January report by the Newspaper National Network found male sports fans ages 18-54 turn to newspaper sports sections most frequently for their sports news, information and analysis (not including live game coverage).

Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they turn to newspapers, followed by:

 • 45 percent to ESPN Sports Center.

 • 42 percent to TV news.

 • 41 percent to all-sports cable networks.

 • 33 percent to sports talk radio.

 • 23 percent to Sports Illustrated.

Sports sections of newspaper websites also topped the list of digital sources of sports news.

A majority of respondents said newspapers provided them with more in-depth coverage about the teams and players they cared about and provided sports information they couldn’t find anywhere else.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434 karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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