Newsrooms grow less comfortable with the “view from above”

“2020 has prompted a more profound acknowledgment of the fact that people who make news images — much like people who write news stories, and people who run newsrooms — are situated and partial.”

As unprecedented numbers of marchers pounded the pavement to protest racist police violence in 2020, expressing outrage at the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, some of the most impactful and widely circulated news images were, rather counterintuitively, views from above.

City streets themselves became sites for the inscription of protesters’ central message: street murals reading BLACK LIVES MATTER were painted in cities across the U.S. and beyond. And although the first of these murals was instigated by a municipal government rather than by a crowd of marchers — D.C.’s Department of Public Works, not far from the White House — groups of volunteers in multiple cities swiftly emulated its example, painting the movement’s slogan on their streets and giving it a public presence far more expansive and durable than any cardboard sign.

Conspicuous in public space and, for the most part, collectively generated, these murals quickly became a potent icon of the mass movement that gave rise to them. Their production, visibility, and defacement soon became a story in its own right. And aerial photographs depicting them soon became a familiar feature of the protests’ press coverage.

Much of the strategic brilliance of the Black Lives Matter street murals lay in the way that they inverted the normal functions of aerial imagery. Views from above tend to render subjects on the ground small, unindividuated, and subject to potential surveillance; they tend to dehumanize. It’s no coincidence that the visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff has associated aerial views with the gaze of authority — an “authority to tell us to move on” and that “there’s nothing to see here”; an authority on which policing has traditionally rested. But when the streets themselves are emblazoned with a movement’s slogan, even the most detached, godlike photographs from above are forced to acknowledge the sanctity of Black lives.

Despite the unusual potency and impact of photographs from above in the coverage of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, the movement as a whole has actually helped to hasten a shift away from disembodied “views from nowhere.” Instead, 2020 has prompted a more profound acknowledgment of the fact that people who make news images — much like people who write news stories, and people who run newsrooms — are situated and partial.

As the protests forced news institutions to reckon with their own complicity in the day-to-day maintenance of white supremacy, two observations that photographers and journalists of color have been making for years were expressed with renewed urgency: first, that news institutions need to do more to make themselves genuinely representative of the diverse populations they serve; and second, that the ideal of objectivity is often practiced in a way that reinforces racial bias, upholding whiteness as an unspoken norm. In 2021 and beyond, news institutions will need to adapt to this political and epistemic reckoning.

In World Press Photo’s most recent State of News Photography report, published in 2018, questions about race and ethnicity seemed to rankle one respondent, who wished to discuss their profession without reference to race. “I don’t see any reason why you need to know if I am Black or white, yellow or green,” the respondent wrote, offering a trope that purportedly “colorblind” white people often recite.

But the statistics presented in the report made it abundantly clear why a frank discussion of race was needed. Among the news photographers who responded to World Press Photo’s large-scale survey, only 1.4 percent of them — a total of 14 people — were Black.

It is unsurprising, then, that many news institutions struggle to present nuanced depictions of Black lives. The visual journalist Tara Pixley, writing for Nieman Reports in 2017, reported seeing “a dearth of diverse perspectives” during her decade and a half working in several newsrooms: “When both photographers in the field and photo editors in the newsroom are primarily white and male, news images will reflect that singular perspective,” she wrote. Initiatives among photographers of color to redress this lack of representation — such as Diversify Photo, an organization that promotes the work of BIPOC photographers and offers a database intended to help editors incorporate diverse perspectives — have issued a challenge to the positioning of whiteness as a tacit norm, a default setting.

This is crucial work, because when whiteness operates as a default setting, calls for journalistic objectivity often have the effect of excluding, hemming in, or silencing people of color. In a rousing and important New York Times op-ed in June, the reporter Wesley Lowery observed that too frequently in newsrooms, “The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral. When black and brown reporters and editors challenge those conventions, it’s not uncommon for them to be pushed out, reprimanded, or robbed of new opportunities.”

A more morally sound and intellectually honest approach, Lowery wrote, would be for editors to “consider truly listening to” news workers of color and working to center the perspectives they offer. Editors would also do well, as Lowery and others have noted, to think carefully about whether their image of objective reporting is implicitly, invisibly calibrated to white readers. As the journalist Lewis Raven Wallace — whose book is aptly titled The View from Somewhereasserted in a discussion with the Columbia Journalism Review, “The journalism we call objective is generally just biased towards accepted social and political norms.” If this is so — and I believe it is — then the “view from nowhere” that proponents of journalistic objectivity claim to offer is, in practice, usually a view from above: It is a perspective that issues from a position of authority but refuses to acknowledge its exclusionary status.

It is my hopeful prediction that in 2021, editors will make good-faith efforts to learn from 2020’s protests and eschew an illusory image of objectivity in favor of staffs and stories that better reflect the diversity of the world that surrounds them. If this happens, the slogans that occupied city streets will find new life in newsrooms — and journalism will be better for it.

Annie Rudd is an assistant professor in the department of communication, media, and film at the University of Calgary.

As unprecedented numbers of marchers pounded the pavement to protest racist police violence in 2020, expressing outrage at the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, some of the most impactful and widely circulated news images were, rather counterintuitively, views from above.

City streets themselves became sites for the inscription of protesters’ central message: street murals reading BLACK LIVES MATTER were painted in cities across the U.S. and beyond. And although the first of these murals was instigated by a municipal government rather than by a crowd of marchers — D.C.’s Department of Public Works, not far from the White House — groups of volunteers in multiple cities swiftly emulated its example, painting the movement’s slogan on their streets and giving it a public presence far more expansive and durable than any cardboard sign.

Conspicuous in public space and, for the most part, collectively generated, these murals quickly became a potent icon of the mass movement that gave rise to them. Their production, visibility, and defacement soon became a story in its own right. And aerial photographs depicting them soon became a familiar feature of the protests’ press coverage.

Much of the strategic brilliance of the Black Lives Matter street murals lay in the way that they inverted the normal functions of aerial imagery. Views from above tend to render subjects on the ground small, unindividuated, and subject to potential surveillance; they tend to dehumanize. It’s no coincidence that the visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff has associated aerial views with the gaze of authority — an “authority to tell us to move on” and that “there’s nothing to see here”; an authority on which policing has traditionally rested. But when the streets themselves are emblazoned with a movement’s slogan, even the most detached, godlike photographs from above are forced to acknowledge the sanctity of Black lives.

Despite the unusual potency and impact of photographs from above in the coverage of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, the movement as a whole has actually helped to hasten a shift away from disembodied “views from nowhere.” Instead, 2020 has prompted a more profound acknowledgment of the fact that people who make news images — much like people who write news stories, and people who run newsrooms — are situated and partial.

As the protests forced news institutions to reckon with their own complicity in the day-to-day maintenance of white supremacy, two observations that photographers and journalists of color have been making for years were expressed with renewed urgency: first, that news institutions need to do more to make themselves genuinely representative of the diverse populations they serve; and second, that the ideal of objectivity is often practiced in a way that reinforces racial bias, upholding whiteness as an unspoken norm. In 2021 and beyond, news institutions will need to adapt to this political and epistemic reckoning.

In World Press Photo’s most recent State of News Photography report, published in 2018, questions about race and ethnicity seemed to rankle one respondent, who wished to discuss their profession without reference to race. “I don’t see any reason why you need to know if I am Black or white, yellow or green,” the respondent wrote, offering a trope that purportedly “colorblind” white people often recite.

But the statistics presented in the report made it abundantly clear why a frank discussion of race was needed. Among the news photographers who responded to World Press Photo’s large-scale survey, only 1.4 percent of them — a total of 14 people — were Black.

It is unsurprising, then, that many news institutions struggle to present nuanced depictions of Black lives. The visual journalist Tara Pixley, writing for Nieman Reports in 2017, reported seeing “a dearth of diverse perspectives” during her decade and a half working in several newsrooms: “When both photographers in the field and photo editors in the newsroom are primarily white and male, news images will reflect that singular perspective,” she wrote. Initiatives among photographers of color to redress this lack of representation — such as Diversify Photo, an organization that promotes the work of BIPOC photographers and offers a database intended to help editors incorporate diverse perspectives — have issued a challenge to the positioning of whiteness as a tacit norm, a default setting.

This is crucial work, because when whiteness operates as a default setting, calls for journalistic objectivity often have the effect of excluding, hemming in, or silencing people of color. In a rousing and important New York Times op-ed in June, the reporter Wesley Lowery observed that too frequently in newsrooms, “The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral. When black and brown reporters and editors challenge those conventions, it’s not uncommon for them to be pushed out, reprimanded, or robbed of new opportunities.”

A more morally sound and intellectually honest approach, Lowery wrote, would be for editors to “consider truly listening to” news workers of color and working to center the perspectives they offer. Editors would also do well, as Lowery and others have noted, to think carefully about whether their image of objective reporting is implicitly, invisibly calibrated to white readers. As the journalist Lewis Raven Wallace — whose book is aptly titled The View from Somewhereasserted in a discussion with the Columbia Journalism Review, “The journalism we call objective is generally just biased towards accepted social and political norms.” If this is so — and I believe it is — then the “view from nowhere” that proponents of journalistic objectivity claim to offer is, in practice, usually a view from above: It is a perspective that issues from a position of authority but refuses to acknowledge its exclusionary status.

It is my hopeful prediction that in 2021, editors will make good-faith efforts to learn from 2020’s protests and eschew an illusory image of objectivity in favor of staffs and stories that better reflect the diversity of the world that surrounds them. If this happens, the slogans that occupied city streets will find new life in newsrooms — and journalism will be better for it.

Annie Rudd is an assistant professor in the department of communication, media, and film at the University of Calgary.

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