How student newsrooms can document — not exploit — a community with a photo story


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By Aarohi Sheth, University of Southern California

The power of photos is undeniable. They have the potential to spark awareness and action-based change, as seen in photos of farmer protests in India, Haitian migrants fleeing to Texas, Russia’s war on Ukraine and many others. They capture a viscerality that words cannot.

To Annenberg Mediathe University of Southern California Student Newsroom, we are increasingly publishing photo stories on everything from holi for protests against sexual assault in Greek life recent vigils honoring those who have lost their lives in anti-Asian hate crimes.

I’m a photojournalist and have documented Black Lives Matter protests, the impact of gentrification on small businesses, and cultural festivals. However, I don’t take pictures for Annenberg Media — I’m part of the newsroom Equity Councilfor which I edit visuals, audio/videos and written stories related to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

There is a fine line between using photography to tell a poignant and compelling story and exploiting the community you cover. And especially as a student photojournalist, it can be difficult to decipher whether your presence and your work benefit the surrounding communities.

So how do you find the balance between telling stories and not being exploitative in photojournalism?

First, it’s important to get to know a community or region without your camera.

The key to being a good journalist – whatever the medium – is building trust with communities. Parachute journalism, or moving in and out of an area to simply extract stories from a particular community, rather than engaging with it, happens too often. Student journalists are even more likely to slip into parachute journalism, as they may get used to their campus bubble and not know the community outside of it.

A good way to connect with people and gain their trust is to spend time in the areas you want to cover without your camera. Approach them as people you can relate to, rather than potential stories.

“Get to know people and let them get to know you,” said Miki Turner, professor of photojournalism at USC. “Going into a community without your camera is the best thing you can do. This is how people will trust you and understand why you are there.

Michael Chow, one of Annenberg Media’s photojournalists, agreed.

“Spend some time without your camera and listen,” Chow said. “Listen to people’s stories and understand where they’re coming from, especially if they don’t trust you. Understand their concerns, needs and desires before shooting.

Chow also recounted an experience of taking pictures for a history in the Leimert park — which is a black cultural center in Los Angeles — about small businesses in the area and their petition for increased access to public parking.

Chow listened to community members’ feelings of distrust towards Chow and the media in general. They told Chow about their experiences of exploiting the media and how the work of previous journalists did not benefit their community at all, but rather the media organizations.

Community members shared that they wanted to build relationships and tell their stories authentically, rather than continuing to deal with people walking in and out, taking pictures of them.

Chow took advice from residents and spent time with them, learning who they were and connecting with them as people and business owners before taking pictures of them.

It’s important to understand the many ways ethics intertwine with the stories you do. At Annenberg Media, we have our own style guide written by Steven Vargas, a former student of Annenberg. It includes a section on the history of journalism of taking photos out of context and using them to distort communities of color.

Language matters too. For example, Vargas noted photos of people flocking to the streets to celebrate the Los Angeles Lakers’ NBA championship in October 2020 and how they were captioned as a “riot”, misrepresenting the event and portraying fans as violent.

As a journalist, you have a unique position of power and you must constantly ensure that you let community members tell their own story, rather than telling it on their behalf. Think about who will really benefit from the piece before you start filming. If you don’t gauge community members’ feelings and talk to them about their past experiences with the media, you could rekindle them with your work.

Daniel Hahm, editor of Annenberg Media, recalled an assignment he did on affordable housing and homeless communities in Los Angeles. He said his teacher asked him to take photos of encampments and while doing so he had conflicting feelings about whether he was really putting ethics front and center.

“While taking photos, I realized that I was not talking to anyone in the encampments,” he said. “(Taking photos) can take you so far away from the story you’re covering, (so) not having a conversation with the people I was covering felt weird to me.”

He stressed the importance of talking to the people involved in a story and having real interactions with them before taking pictures.

It can also help to write captions that correctly reflect them and contextualize the photo. Incorporating quotes from the people you photographed can also extend the story.

Yannick Peterhans, photo editor at Annenberg Media, said he makes sure to question the privilege he has when reporting on a story.

“The best thing I can do is to be constantly aware of my presence and the fact that I am not a member of the community (I do a story) and it will impact my subjects, regardless of what I do. “, says Peterhans.

What is the main advice of our editorial staff? Listen. Engage with the community you cover and incorporate it into everything you do. Ethics is not just part of visual journalism; they should be at the forefront.

Aarohi Sheth is a journalism student at the University of Southern California.

This is the last issue of a newsletter in a series on visual journalism. Read more recent issues:

The past two editions of Alma Matters, Poynter’s newsletter for journalism educators, are full of thoughts and insights on how journalism schools could be improved. Read Part One and Part Two and share your own insights with Barbara Allen, Director of University Programming at Poynter, at

Newsrooms don’t participate in the industry’s largest diversity survey. Only 303 organizations responded to the News Leaders Association’s annual survey, Sarah Scire reports for Nieman Lab — a fraction of the 2,500 organizations that the NLA asked for answers. The survey, conducted since 1978, is an essential tool for measuring diversity efforts in journalism.

A group of journalism organizations is looking for a new motivation for newsrooms to participate: ask the Pulitzer Prizes to require participation in the NLA survey to be considered for the prestigious awards.

“Our country grapples with racial inequality, and many in the journalism industry are unable or unwilling to provide essential newsroom transparency on staff diversity,” a statement read. open letter to the Pulitzer Prizes. “If we can’t collect crucial data, how can we hope to improve newsroom diversity and represent our communities? »

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