Off the Media: Media Arrrgh!

Infrequent and horribly irregular musings about WNYC radio's "On the Media."

This week, the show explores whether photographers are within their ethical rights to shoot subjects, especially for magazine covers, in a way that serves to influence the perceptions of the audience seeing them. Making Ann Coulter look longer and leggier with use of a wide-angle lens shot from below, shooting someone with certain kinds of lighting or camera filters to make them look darker or more evil, and so on.

One of the reasons photos get so much notice is because the manipulations are so much easier to see, and even feel at a visceral level than in other media. Any distortions or filters can even be quantified (this kind of fisheye lens, that gradient of filter...), while the filters through which we record and write are less obvious if just as important.

My Fulbright project in Japan in the early '90s was about Japanese vs. American coverage of specific news events. Neither side saw its coverage as biased, and the journalists for top-notch organizations on both sides worked very hard to be objective and fair. But they also were coming at the stories -- whether about weighty business and policy issues or more frothy sports matter -- from their own points of view, often culture-bound and even politically influenced. Many seemed to not realize they were coming at a story from a specific angle that was not the only possible angle, did not see that their points of view colored the ways they wrote and talked, that they were strongly steered by sources, and by the editors they filed to who came with their own preconceptions. The classic example of distortion on TV is the protests in Iran after hostages were taken during the Carter administration. The cameraman used a tight shot to make it look as if Tehran was in full protest mode; in fact, a group of about 300 people were dwarfed in a largely empty plaza.

So, while it's reasonable to ask whether photojournalists have an obligation to be more fair. But the question is equally valid for all forms of journalism. There is really no such thing as objectivity. Every time a choice is made about how to portray something -- point a camera, frame a subject, take a quote, ask a question -- the person committing the act of journalism is injecting themselves into the process.

Oh, and why the "arrgh" in the headline? OTM brings on one of their faves, Jeff Jarvis, to talk about whether media "is" or "are" -- Jarvis appears to be talking about platforms, and how there's no longer a distinction between the different forms of media, since anyone can now contribute in multiple ways (photos, text, audio, video). Show hosts Garfield and Gladstone, though, are talking about a multiplicity of voices, and agree, as Garfield says, that it's "are," which sounds when he says it like a pirate exclaiming.
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