20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
3
2050
T   I   O   N
4
2040
S   F   O   R   J
5
2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
6
2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

The expanded ambiguity of the news photograph

“This is not to say that news images have no obligation to tell the truth, or no informational value — only that their truthfulness and informational value are necessarily situated and contingent rather than absolute.”

I predict that, in 2020 and beyond, audiences looking at news photographs will be increasingly inclined to make symbolic readings rather than interpreting them literally and denotatively. But that shift will only come about as a result of continued controversies over the veracity of news images.

Some of the most impactful news photographs to circulate in recent years have been those that presented digestible, legible encapsulations of political crises far too expansive to depict within the space of a single frame. The winner of 2019’s World Press Photo of the Year Award is a case in point. It captures two-year-old Yanela Sanchez, who has just arrived at the United States-Mexico border with her mother, in the middle of an anguished wail. Bordered by a law enforcement vehicle on one side and the legs of her mother, who is being patted down by border patrol, on the other, Sanchez is the only figure depicted in full.

Presenting this moment from something like the child’s perspective — with the camera at her eye level, the adults are impossibly large and emotionally inaccessible — the photograph frames its central subject as isolated from the adults who surround her, and terrorized by this isolation.

The circulation of this image, taken by John Moore of Getty Images, was rapid and extensive, and it soon came to function as visual shorthand for a much broader crisis. As it ran on front pages and appeared in innumerable social media feeds, it was often characterized as a representation of the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Time’s use of this image in a photo illustration on its cover — which quite literally detached Sanchez from her mother, in order to present her against a photograph of a towering Trump — contributed this interpretation, cementing the photograph’s status as an iconic depiction of the crisis of family separation, though Time did not explicitly claim this particular family had been separated.

When reports emerged that Sanchez had not, in fact, been separated from her mother by border patrol, the backlash was swift. Centrist news sources hurriedly issued corrections, characterizing the image as misleading and Time’s use of it a “major mistake,” while a number of right-wing outlets cast the image’s spread as intentionally deceptive, further evidence of an anti-Trump media conspiracy. The correction, and the purported “debunking” of the image, quickly became the story.

But to view this image and its spread as merely erroneous is to miss a larger point about the ways readers experience and value news photographs now — and the ways they will continue to do so in the 2020s. Although readers rely heavily on photographs as sources of information about the world — and view their absence as suspect, in a cultural context characterized by the ubiquity of cameras and the prevalence of “pics or it didn’t happen” mentalities — many of the world’s most pressing problems fail to lend themselves compellingly to visual depiction.

Drawing on the terminology of the political theorist Ariella Azoulay, the photojournalism scholars Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites have described the representational problems attending the “regime-made disaster.” A mode of violence that is widespread in the 21st century, the regime-made disaster entails the ongoing suppression of a population in a manner that “usually operates below the threshold of demonstrable violence,” Hariman and Lucaites write, resulting in “a comprehensive assault on civil society, but in a manner that is visually banal.”

The crisis at the border is not unrepresentable, but much of the misery it has entailed has been spatially contained and protracted rather than explosive and visually dramatic. For this kind of suffering to become visible, affecting, and “real” to those whose privilege or geographical distance shields them from direct acquaintance with it, photographs that strikingly articulate the stakes of the problem can be highly impactful. Moore’s photograph of Sanchez was an image of this sort. As they circulate, images like these become iconic in a double sense: They both visually represent the event in the minds of spectators, and they come to analogize it, standing in for the broader crisis.

In response to the controversy surrounding this image, Time’s editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, issued a statement calling Moore’s photograph “the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate” and asserting that the cover “capture[s] the stakes of this moment.” While his words might strike some as airy or evasive, they point the discussion about news photographs’ functions in a productive, if contentious, direction.

First, they identify a role for the news photograph that is less rigid and more expansive than the proffering of visual facts. This is a necessary adjustment in the 2020s, amid inexhaustible opportunities for the manipulation of still and moving images. This manipulability — which is not new, of course, but is irreversible and expanding — along with reports concerning the prevalence of staging among photojournalists, suggests that predicating news photographs’ value on their denotative qualities is a tendency whose moment has passed.

Second, and relatedly, Felsenthal’s words prescribe a symbolic function for news photographs, suggesting that they can be tasked with encapsulating and visually performing the broad stakes of issues at hand. This reading of news photographs may seem disconcertingly subjective, given that not everyone will be in agreement about what the broad stakes of a given issue are. However, I’d argue that this statement is a good descriptor of how news photographs actually do operate in practice today — they just don’t tend to be described in terms that acknowledge this degree of ambiguity. This is not to say that news images have no obligation to tell the truth, or no informational value — only that their truthfulness and informational value are necessarily situated and contingent rather than absolute.

Debates surrounding the credibility of news images are highly generative, in that they allow a range of perspectives to be aired and make clear to spectators that there’s more than one way to look at a news photograph. I think that as controversies like the one I have been describing continue to emerge, viewing publics will grow more comfortable with an idea that is both unsettling and necessary: that news photographs can be suggestive and also informative, symbolic as well as truthful.

Annie Rudd is an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Communication, Media and Film.

I predict that, in 2020 and beyond, audiences looking at news photographs will be increasingly inclined to make symbolic readings rather than interpreting them literally and denotatively. But that shift will only come about as a result of continued controversies over the veracity of news images.

Some of the most impactful news photographs to circulate in recent years have been those that presented digestible, legible encapsulations of political crises far too expansive to depict within the space of a single frame. The winner of 2019’s World Press Photo of the Year Award is a case in point. It captures two-year-old Yanela Sanchez, who has just arrived at the United States-Mexico border with her mother, in the middle of an anguished wail. Bordered by a law enforcement vehicle on one side and the legs of her mother, who is being patted down by border patrol, on the other, Sanchez is the only figure depicted in full.

Presenting this moment from something like the child’s perspective — with the camera at her eye level, the adults are impossibly large and emotionally inaccessible — the photograph frames its central subject as isolated from the adults who surround her, and terrorized by this isolation.

The circulation of this image, taken by John Moore of Getty Images, was rapid and extensive, and it soon came to function as visual shorthand for a much broader crisis. As it ran on front pages and appeared in innumerable social media feeds, it was often characterized as a representation of the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Time’s use of this image in a photo illustration on its cover — which quite literally detached Sanchez from her mother, in order to present her against a photograph of a towering Trump — contributed this interpretation, cementing the photograph’s status as an iconic depiction of the crisis of family separation, though Time did not explicitly claim this particular family had been separated.

When reports emerged that Sanchez had not, in fact, been separated from her mother by border patrol, the backlash was swift. Centrist news sources hurriedly issued corrections, characterizing the image as misleading and Time’s use of it a “major mistake,” while a number of right-wing outlets cast the image’s spread as intentionally deceptive, further evidence of an anti-Trump media conspiracy. The correction, and the purported “debunking” of the image, quickly became the story.

But to view this image and its spread as merely erroneous is to miss a larger point about the ways readers experience and value news photographs now — and the ways they will continue to do so in the 2020s. Although readers rely heavily on photographs as sources of information about the world — and view their absence as suspect, in a cultural context characterized by the ubiquity of cameras and the prevalence of “pics or it didn’t happen” mentalities — many of the world’s most pressing problems fail to lend themselves compellingly to visual depiction.

Drawing on the terminology of the political theorist Ariella Azoulay, the photojournalism scholars Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites have described the representational problems attending the “regime-made disaster.” A mode of violence that is widespread in the 21st century, the regime-made disaster entails the ongoing suppression of a population in a manner that “usually operates below the threshold of demonstrable violence,” Hariman and Lucaites write, resulting in “a comprehensive assault on civil society, but in a manner that is visually banal.”

The crisis at the border is not unrepresentable, but much of the misery it has entailed has been spatially contained and protracted rather than explosive and visually dramatic. For this kind of suffering to become visible, affecting, and “real” to those whose privilege or geographical distance shields them from direct acquaintance with it, photographs that strikingly articulate the stakes of the problem can be highly impactful. Moore’s photograph of Sanchez was an image of this sort. As they circulate, images like these become iconic in a double sense: They both visually represent the event in the minds of spectators, and they come to analogize it, standing in for the broader crisis.

In response to the controversy surrounding this image, Time’s editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, issued a statement calling Moore’s photograph “the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate” and asserting that the cover “capture[s] the stakes of this moment.” While his words might strike some as airy or evasive, they point the discussion about news photographs’ functions in a productive, if contentious, direction.

First, they identify a role for the news photograph that is less rigid and more expansive than the proffering of visual facts. This is a necessary adjustment in the 2020s, amid inexhaustible opportunities for the manipulation of still and moving images. This manipulability — which is not new, of course, but is irreversible and expanding — along with reports concerning the prevalence of staging among photojournalists, suggests that predicating news photographs’ value on their denotative qualities is a tendency whose moment has passed.

Second, and relatedly, Felsenthal’s words prescribe a symbolic function for news photographs, suggesting that they can be tasked with encapsulating and visually performing the broad stakes of issues at hand. This reading of news photographs may seem disconcertingly subjective, given that not everyone will be in agreement about what the broad stakes of a given issue are. However, I’d argue that this statement is a good descriptor of how news photographs actually do operate in practice today — they just don’t tend to be described in terms that acknowledge this degree of ambiguity. This is not to say that news images have no obligation to tell the truth, or no informational value — only that their truthfulness and informational value are necessarily situated and contingent rather than absolute.

Debates surrounding the credibility of news images are highly generative, in that they allow a range of perspectives to be aired and make clear to spectators that there’s more than one way to look at a news photograph. I think that as controversies like the one I have been describing continue to emerge, viewing publics will grow more comfortable with an idea that is both unsettling and necessary: that news photographs can be suggestive and also informative, symbolic as well as truthful.

Annie Rudd is an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Communication, Media and Film.

Kourtney Bitterly   Transparency isn’t just a desire, it’s an expectation

Brian Moritz   The end of “stick to sports”

Jasmine McNealy   A call for context

Bill Grueskin   Our ethics codes get an overhaul

Knight Foundation   Five generations of journalists, learning from each other

Fiona Spruill   The climate crisis gets the coverage it deserves

Jeremy Gilbert and Jarrod Dicker   A call for collaboration between storytelling and tech

Craig Newmark   Formalizing newsrooms’ battle against disinformation

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists get left behind in the industry’s decline

Mario García   Think small (screen)

Imaeyen Ibanga   Let’s take it slow

Monique Judge   The year to organize, unionize, and fight

Kathleen Searles   Pay more attention to attention

Alexandra Borchardt   Get out of the office and talk to people

An Xiao Mina   The Forum we wanted, the forum we got

Greg Emerson   News apps fall further behind

Laura E. Davis   Know the context your journalism is operating within

Millie Tran   Wicked

Nushin Rashidian   Are platforms a bridge or a lifeline?

Alfred Hermida and Mary Lynn Young   The promise of nonprofit journalism

John Keefe   Journalism gets hacked

Michael W. Wagner   Increasingly fractured, but little bit deliberative

Mariana Moura Santos   The future of journalism is collaborative

Margarita Noriega   The platforms try to figure out what to do with single-subject newsrooms

Simon Galperin   Journalism becomes more democratic

M. Scott Havens   First-party data becomes media’s most important currency

Jake Shapiro   Podcasting gets listener relationship management

Bill Adair   A Nobel Prize, a Brad Pitt film, and a Taylor Swift song

Nicholas Jackson   What’s left of local gets comfortable with reader support

Annie Rudd   The expanded ambiguity of the news photograph

Emily Withrow   The year we kill the news article

Jim Brady   We’ll complain about other people living in bubbles while ignoring our own

Irving Washington   Leadership isn’t something you learn on the job

Tamar Charney   From broadcast to bespoke

Tom Glaisyer   Journalism can emerge newly vibrant and powerful

Alana Levinson   Brand-backed media gets another look

Peter Bale   Lies get further normalized

Rachel Schallom   The value of push alerts goes beyond open rates

Brenda P. Salinas   Treating MP3 files like text

Logan Jaffe   You don’t need fancy tools to listen

Dannagal G. Young   Let’s disrupt the logic that’s driving Americans apart

Barbara Gray   Join local libraries on the frontlines of civic engagement

Tonya Mosley   The neutrality vs. objectivity game ends

Alice Antheaume   Trade “politics” for “power”

Marie Gilot   This is fine

Kerri Hoffman   Opening closed systems

Nikki Usher   All systems down

Nico Gendron   Make better products if you want to reach Gen Z

Kevin Douglas Grant   The free press stands against authoritarians’ attacks on truth

Catalina Albeanu   Rebuilding journalism, together

Geneva Overholser   Death to bothsidesism

Cory Haik   We’re already consuming the future of news — now we have to produce it

Heidi Tworek   The year of positive pushback

Pablo Boczkowski   The day after November 4

Carl Bialik   Journalists will try running the whole shop

Francesco Zaffarano   TikTok without generational prejudice

Doris Truong   The year of radical salary transparency

Logan Molyneux and Shannon McGregor   Think twice before turning to Twitter

Kristen Muller   The year we operationalize community engagement

Sarah Alvarez   I’m ready for post-news

Sarah Marshall   The year to learn about news moments

Felix Salmon   Spotify launches a news channel

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting finally creates another mega-hit show

Mike Caulfield   Native verification tools for the blue checkmark crowd

Sonali Prasad   Climate change storytelling gets multidimensional

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The business we want, not the business we had

Beena Raghavendran   The year of the local engagement reporter

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   A changing industry amps up podcasters’ ambitions

Rachel Davis Mersey   The business of local TV news will enter its downward slide

Candis Callison   Taking a cue from Indigenous journalists on climate change

Masuma Ahuja   Slower, quieter, more measured and thoughtful

John Garrett   It’s the best time in a century to start a local news organization

Errin Haines   Race and gender aren’t a 2020 story — they’re the story

Cindy Royal   Prepare media students for skills, not job titles

S. Mitra Kalita   The race to 2021

Jennifer Brandel   A love letter from the year 2073

Jeff Kofman   Speed through technology

Joni Deutsch   Podcasting unsilences the silent

Rick Berke   Incoming fire from both left and right

Christa Scharfenberg   It’s time to make journalism a field that supports and respects women

L. Gordon Crovitz   Fighting misinformation requires journalism, not secret algorithms

Nathalie Malinarich   Betting on loyalty

Linda Solomon Wood   Everyone in your organization, moving toward a common goal

Heather Bryant   Some kinds of journalism aren’t worth saving

Cristina Kim   Public media stops trying to serve “everybody”

Monica Drake   A renewed focus on misinformation

Stefanie Murray   Charitable giving goes collaborative

Mira Lowe   The year of student-powered journalism

Madelyn Sanfilippo and Yafit Lev-Aretz   News coverage gets geo-fragmented

Ben Werdmuller   Use the tools of journalism to save it

Julia B. Chan   We 👏 take 👏 breaks 👏

Zizi Papacharissi   A president leads, the press follows, reality fades

Jeremy Olshan   All journalism should be service journalism

Jonas Kaiser   Russian bots are just today’s slacktivists

Lauren Duca   The rise of the journalistic influencer

Richard J. Tofel   A constraint of the reader-revenue model emerges

Don Day   Respect the non-paying audience

Dan Shanoff   Sports media enters the Bronny era

Matthew Pressman   News consumers divide into haves and have-nots

Ernie Smith   The death of the industry fad

Mary Walter-Brown and Tristan Loper   Power to the people (on your audience team)

Helen Havlak   Platforms shine a light on original reporting

Tanya Cordrey   Saying no to more good ideas

Matt DeRienzo   Local broadcasters begin to fill the gaps left by newspapers

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, collaboration in a time of state attacks

Elizabeth Dunbar   Frank talk, and then action

Elizabeth Hansen and Jesse Holcomb   Local news initiatives run into a capital shortage

Sarah Stonbely   More people start caring about news inequality

Sarah Schmalbach   Journalist, quantify thyself

Carrie Brown-Smith   Engaged journalism: It’s finally happening

Josh Schwartz   Publishers move beyond the metered paywall

Raney Aronson-Rath   News deserts will proliferate — but so will new solutions

Anthony Nadler   Clash of Clans: Election Edition

Victor Pickard   We reclaim a public good

Meredith Artley   Stronger solidarity among news organizations

A.J. Bauer   A fork in the road for conservative media

Joshua Darr   All that campaign cash will make the media’s problems worse

Steve Henn   The dawning audio web

Lucas Graves   A smarter conversation about how (and why) fact-checking matters

Sara K. Baranowski   A big year for little newspapers

Jakob Moll   A slow-moving tech backlash among young people

Joanne McNeil   A return to blogs (finally? sort of?)

james Wahutu   Western journalists, learn from your African peers

Colleen Shalby   Journalists become media literacy teachers

Whitney Phillips   A time to question core beliefs

Meg Marco   Everything happens somewhere

Joe Amditis   Collaborative journalism takes its rightful place at the table

Seth C. Lewis   20 questions for 2020

Talia Stroud   The work of reconnecting starts November 4

Sue Robinson   Campaign coverage as test bed for engagement experiments

Adam Thomas   The silver bullet

Hossein Derakhshan   AI can’t conjure up an Errol Morris

Ståle Grut   OSINT journalism goes mainstream