Canned Outrage Diminishes Photojournalism’s Credibility

The market of ideas has always had its malcontents and misfits. The rage sector of the economy, as I like to think of it. And nobody in the world today knows how to trade in rage credits like Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who has invited more than his fair share of flowers, praise, controversy, and death threats — except, for the most part, without the flowers and praise.

As the photographic corps continues to cover anti-Wilders reaction across the globe, it may be a good time to introspect a bit. As recent history has pointed out, there are certain segments of the world body that take a special delight in anger — which photojournalists love to document.

Whether it’s directed at Danish cartoons, another one of Pope Benedict’s speeches, Israel, a teddy bear named Mohammed, Israel, the sky being blue, or Israel, we see photograph after photograph after photograph of the brightest sort of anger.

But could it be that, much like a Rolex on a New York street corner, there’s a chance that some of this outrage might not be the real deal?

Is a 40-Person Protest Really a Story?

Take, for instance, a recent flare-up of Indonesian anti-Dutch anger at the close of March. Wire service captions described the scene in exacting detail. Protesters were marching in front of the Dutch embassy in a white-hot rage against Geert’s little documentary, calling for his death, and otherwise making quite a ruckus.

A whopping 40 protesters, that is.

Really. Let that sink in a bit before you continue.

We’re treated to photographs of a march that is described by the different wire services as being 40 or 50 protesters marching in the street, in a country of over 230 million citizens. And, to make matters worse, the clear implication is that these 40 to 50 malcontents are representative of mainstream Indonesian thought on issues surrounding Wilders & Co.
In statistical terms, that means that we’ve taken a sample of roughly 0.000007% of the population’s opinion — not exactly the most scientific of studies, even for someone who is as math-challenged as myself.

Professional Protestors and Serial Outragists

In fact, I can pretty comfortably say that such a sample would make for a good, hearty laugh in any statistics department throughout the land. Right before the sample-taker in question is expelled, of course.

Could it be that perhaps there wasn’t so much “news” pictured here, as there was the anger of a tiny handful of social misfits? We’re left to guess that on our own, as the wire services don’t seem to be interested in exploring this question in detail.

Another thing to consider is what to do when we encounter the same person or group of people in protest photographs over a long period of time. I’ve been inclined to refer to these sorts as either professional protesters or serial outragists, considering that their only discernable pursuit in life appears to be, well, being outraged. It’s probably not the kindest description of their chosen hobby — which is pretty funny, coming from someone whose chosen hobby is “blogging.”

Wire Services Getting Played

How do the wire services handle these types? As far as I’ve been able to tell so far, by conveniently ignoring the repetitiveness, presenting each appearance as if it were unique. From Bilin to Srinagar to Karachi, we the newsreaders are expected to observe the depth of the serial outragists’ feelings, even if said feelings happen to be available to the nearest photographer on cue.

I don’t know about you, but the “available on cue” part of that tends to take some of the romance out of it for me. And by “romance,” you just know I mean “reality.” I’m sneaky like that!

Of course, this raises the question of how the wires should cover orchestrated events in general. After all, by nature of the fact that the photo subjects are coordinated — be it by a “political activist” or an imam — aren’t we essentially admitting that the news services are being played like violins? And, by ignoring this careful orchestration, might it not be perceived by some that the wires even approve of whatever agenda the propagandists are promoting?

Just Because It’s a Powerful Image, That Doesn’t Make It News

Ignorance may be a reasonable excuse, but that would imply that the editorial staff is unaware of the orchestration — a difficult case to prove given the available evidence, if you ask me.

The fires of anger and hatred may occasionally burn fierce throughout the world. And yes, pictures of such fires will undoubtedly sell newspapers.

If, however, the primary motivation of news services is still supposed to be covering the news, then perhaps it’s time to step back and reconsider how these events are presented. There’s no profit motive in the world that will make up for misleading the average news consumer. After all, they are ultimately the ones holding the wallets.

[tags]photojournalism, media criticism[/tags]

2 Responses to “Canned Outrage Diminishes Photojournalism’s Credibility”

  1. I agree that a protest of 40 people is not the most newsworthy story in the world. But keep in mind that the wire services produce a flood of photos every day, and I'm sure some of those are even less "newsworthy."

    Also, keep in mind that a powerful photo or video does amp up the news value in the eyes of editors because powerful images and video are a necessary part of the editorial mix. Does this lead to laziness and abuses? Sure. But this happens much more frequently with video on cable news -- which makes anything with compelling footage (e.g., police pursuits, viral videos, etc.) the top "news" stories of the day.

    Where you err is in presenting it like there's some grand conspiracy behind it, rather than simple laziness and pandering to readers

  1. [...] Is a 40-person protest in a country of 230 million really news? (Black Star Rising) [...]

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