Sunday, September 11, 2011

Are those working in the media professionals?

There was an interesting story in my local paper — The London Free Press. It seems a man was arrested, charged and found guilty of obstructing police after he got too close to the action while shooting pictures. London police were arresting a drunk on a downtown London street and Ireneusz Janiszewski thought, incorrectly it turns out, that he could go anywhere he pleased to get a picture of the arrest. Since all was occurring on a public sidewalk, he thought he was free to shoot from any vantage point, even if it involved disobeying a direct police order.

The man said he was a photojournalist: An interesting assertion which the reporter did not seem to take seriously. A quick reading of the newspaper's stories might leave one thinking Janiszewski was a photo buff or wannabe shutterbug. At best, one might think of the shooter as an "aspiring photojournalist."

Despite the reporter's unease at applying the term photojournalist to the accused, the headline writer for the second story bravely called a spade a spade, or in this case a photojournalist a photojournalist.

I think the reason for the tone of the news story was that newspaper folk are very protective of their turf. They like to refer to themselves as professionals despite the fact it does not take a special degree to do their work. (In fact, an America District Judge ruled in 1993 that newspaper reporters and photographers are not professionals as defined by U.S. federal labour law.)

Name of accused spelled two ways
Maybe, just maybe, if newspaper folk were professionals some of the most egregious errors would not appear in print. For instance, the charged man's name was spelled two ways in two stories in The Free Press.

Variety is not the spice of life in a news story, and unfortunately this story had way too much variety. A headline tells us "photojournalist given unconditional discharge" but the story tells us "he was granted a conditional discharge."

If news reporting was a profession, there would be standards. Spelling errors in names and other incorrectly reported stuff might be corrected. But days after mistakes are made, they often remain on the newspaper website. In the past, I have drawn the attention of reporters and editors to errors in posted copy. Sometimes the slip-ups are corrected — sometimes not. There is clearly no policy and this is not a hallmark of professionalism.

I worked for more than four decades in the newspaper field. In the early years I never heard the term photojournalist applied to newspaper shooters. We were simply staff photographers. When a reporter or editor needed art to illustrate a story, a photographer was given an assignment sheet detailing what was expected.

It may surprise you to know than most photographers with National Geographic did not major in photography but they have college degrees in a variety of disciplines: journalism, anthropology, sociology or psychology, fine arts, and sciences.

When I worked at The Sault Daily Star, the folk doing the hiring had an unwritten policy against hiring anyone with a journalism degree. Shortly after I was hired, a young man with a BA in English from the University of Windsor was hired as a cub reporter. With writing skills and an understanding of spelling and grammar he was preferred over a journalism graduate from Carlton University. It seems the grads from Ottawa came complete with a professional attitude that had to be dismantled.

That young man went on to become an excellent reporter and one of the best editors I have known. He has a very inquisitive mind. He is now retired but in the entire course of his career he never pulled some of the conceit-driven stunts pulled by some of the journalism grads I have worked with.

Some years ago I covered a fuel spill on Oxford Street East. The police stopped The Free Press reporter and me from getting too close to the scene. They claimed it was too dangerous. Yet, we could see police officers near the spill walking about without masks, quietly chatting with each other. The reporter, a journalism student working at the paper for the summer, was incensed. She argued angrily with the police. Finally, the officer in charge came over and in a fit of uncontrolled pique she told him to "Fuck off!" She was escorted to her car.

Thinking of that student, that professional reporter to be, and comparing her to that photojournalist wannabe convicted of obstructing a London police officer, I think I see some similarities.



1: For another look at the question of what is a photojournalist, check out this earlier post: Who's a photojournalist?

In truth, all too often newspapers use photographs to fill holes and to visually support for their stories. This type of newspaper editorial photography has more in common with advertising bumph than journalism.

When The London Free Press ran a story claiming men who buy sex commit more crimes, the piece ran with a stock photo. The rough dude in the photo and the cigarette smoking hooker were models and the photo came from a stock photo agency.

It must be pointed out that The Free Press owned up to this use of stock photography. They credited the source of their photo as Shutterstock. An observant reader would have realized this was not photojournalism.

2: What were the two spellings of Janiszewski's name? Well, in an earlier story his first name is Ireneusz. In the later story an "e" is dropped and he is Irenusz

3: The story tells us the incident occurred "near the northwest entrance of CitiPlaza (sic) at King and Wellington streets." The King and Wellington intersection is found on the east side of Citi Plaza.

I write CitiPlaza (sic) because I took pictures at the plaza some time ago and was told the correct spelling was two words and given a business card to prove it. The plaza's website still spells the name Citi Plaza. Why does The Free Press want to be cute? (This is not the first time that I have seen this in the local paper.)

4: I'm not an editor, as evident in this piece; I need an editor. That said, almost everyone could use a good editor. Our newspapers, staffed with professionals, do not see it this way. Thus, we see stuff like the following: "He was granted a conditional discharge with 12 months' probation." Note that months is simply plural; It should not be possessive. A good editor would have caught this and corrected it before it went in the daily paper and onto the Web.

5: And what exactly does it mean that the erstwhile photojournalist, he may not be doing too much photojournalism in the future, was given a conditional discharge? The paper tell us, "A discharge keeps him from acquiring a criminal record."

London Police Service sees it differently. They write on the Web: "A discharge is a criminal record for the life of the discharge (although it is not a record of “conviction.”) It is all a little confusing but what is clear is that in the end those given a discharge must request the destruction of the record. London Police Services will do this when asked but not all police forces.

My guess, and it is just a guess, is that the reason the photographer and his lawyer turned down the offer of a discharge before the case reached the courts was that they believed they would be able to win the case, beat the charge, and the photographer would walk cleanly away from the legal mess. He didn't want a discharge if he could avoid it.

I know someone who was given a type of discharge and in the short term it caused them lots of problems.


  1. > 2: What were the two spellings of Janiszewski's name? Well, in an earlier story his first name is Ireneusz. In the later story the "u" is dropped and he is Irenusz.
    Of course you meant to write 'In the later story the second "e" is dropped'. Given your fourth point,
    > I'm not an editor, as evident in this piece; I need an editor.

    You were probably just giving an example.
    PS: nice column. I would have liked to see some opinion of the legality/morality of the police making the arrest in the first place.

  2. Thank you for catching my error. When I say I need an editor, most of us do, I am not joking.

    It now reads "e".