February 27, 2013

BagNewsNotes Response to World Press and POY Pellegrin Decisions, Controversy Overall

In eight years, there is hardly an instance in which we have published a post without an image, as that’s our focus. Below are our thoughts about the World Press and POY decision yesterday, but more significantly, our reaction to this controversy and our role in it almost a week later. The response below is an adapted version of a requested reply to Picture of the Year, their specific questions stated off-the-record.

We were pleased to see World Press Photo and POY took note of our original post to the extent Mr. Pellegrin’s caption misrepresented the photo subject. We are glad they have replaced the caption even if they chose not to address other problems of designation and description as well as the larger ethical issues.

In the context of those ethical issues regarding Paolo Pellegrin’s photos, we can’t help but feel that the concentration on BagNewsNotes, and the focus on contacting the photographer prior to publication, is missing the larger point. And, as Mr. Pellegrin has now responded in interviews with the NPPAThe New York Times, and PDN, this line of inquiry seems less relevant.

This is not an argument between a photographer and a blog. We are not reporters. While it is easy for the photojournalism establishment to tag us with a requirement to give Mr. Pellegrin a chance to respond in the name of objectivity, we do believe that’s because they fundamentally misunderstand our mission: subjective analysis. Not dishonest analysis, but a subjectively analytical argument as to what is behind the photograph.

As Northwestern University Communications Professor and BagNewsNotes contributor Robert Hariman put it, “How does one report without being a reporter …Scientists, business people, consultants, and citizens, among others, report all the time without being employed as reporters. Likewise, journalism awards have been won by people who don’t self-identify as journalists. Blogging blurs genres and occupational categories alike…”

Does the presence of accusation present its own “blur” and suddenly imbue us with a duty to get Mr. Pellegrin’s side of the story? It is understandable that many think so. But we are not a newspaper and we are not an award organization. Photographers have weighed in on our opinions about their photographs in the comments on our site. They have written us and we have given them space to respond. We have always encouraged that. Had we contacted Mr. Pellegrin, it clearly would have made some people more comfortable, but again, the so-called objectivity of the press is not our job. We are a blog. A well-respected one, but a blog nonetheless.

That being said, we do realize that contacting Mr. Pellegrin would have eliminated contact from being the issue and focused the community on the substantive nature of the post. In an age in which industry ethics are on the minds of many, these are important issues that affect the entire field and study of photojournalism. This discussion needs to take place via exchange and debate that is not prosecutorial in tone and gives space to all voices. To the extent we didn’t allow that to happen through tone, narrowness of focus or zealousness, we would have done it a different way. The issues the post raised are still vital, however, and it is incumbent on publications, editors, academics, photographers, bloggers and photo contests not to be distracted from this important discussion.

It was never our goal to hurt Mr. Pellegrin’s career or his entry in WPP or Picture of the Year. Our intent was to look behind the photographs to encourage critical thinking and analysis. Do we think the entire controversy portends the need for a larger, more open discussion? Yes, we do. And we are impressed with the high caliber of discussion our post has engendered. Still, it is discouraging to the extent this has become about BagNewsNotes and the ethics of journalism rather than about the ethics of photojournalism. Nonetheless, we stand by the content of our post and encourage all photojournalists and related organizations to focus on the important issues contained therein.

Update: The title of this post and the first paragraph have been edited to include the POY update this morning. Here is the page POY also created with the Rochester Crescent photo and statements from Paolo and BagNewsNotes.

Update 2 (2/28/13): Although it only addresses the story summary and the misrepresentation of Mr. Keller as far as the caption goes, we believe it’s a positive step to see POY director, Rick Shaw, recognize captions and story summaries “to the level of published work,” and to also learn in the same Lens Blog interview that new language about self-authorship and accuracy will be added to the contest rules next year.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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