Monday, December 10, 2012

File art has no place in news story

The London Free Press online teaser warned of freezing rain. The picture indicated, that for some Londoners, freezing was already here. Clearly, a Free Press photographer or reporter had shot a picture of an icy mirror.

As a former Free Press photographer, I spent a lot of time driving about the area on treacherous winter roads taking pictures for the paper. Freezing rain and ice slicked roads were my biggest fear.

According to Texas A&M, "Freezing rain is difficult to forecast because just one or two degrees in temperature difference can mean either rain or snow or freezing rain. Freezing rain is very dangerous because it tends to coat roads with ice first. If the surface it hits is 32 degrees or lower, it will quickly freeze on contact, and the resulting ice storms can shut down an entire city very quickly."

Warning readers of dangers in life, such as the possibility of freezing rain coating the area, is what online newspapers should do. The stuff can instantly render a road too slippery for walking let alone driving. No one should drive on the stuff.

When I used to be sent out to grab a picture showing London in the middle of a freezing ice storm, I used to wish there was another way to get an image — a way that did not involve me driving on wet, icy roads. Well, today there is!

Thanks to photography having gone digital, a reader living in an affected area can take a picture showing the ice with their cell phone and transmit it to the newsroom. I can recall the newsroom phoning readers in areas hit by something like an ice storms and gathering information for a story from the safety of the York Street building. Photographers didn't get off so lightly.

News photos are not simply shims for a page, although that is the way they were, and are, all too often used. Nor are news photos simply illustrations to enliven the visual appeal of a story. That is why editors usually insisted on fresh art for a story. The Free Press was a N-E-W-S-paper.

Many of the editors I had the good fortune to work with over the years would not have risked frightening readers with an image misrepresenting the news. The image of an ice encrusted driver's outside mirror would have had to show a moment from the day.

Look carefully at the image. There is no credit given. When I clicked on the image and went to the linked story, I noticed no credit appeared beneath the image running with the story. Odd.

I thought whoever took this picture was very, dare I say, lucky. You see, I spent the day driving about London doing Christmas shopping. I watched the temperature gauge on my dash very carefully. Sometimes it registered three full degrees Fahrenheit above freezing. At no point did I come across freezing rain.

At night I had to drive from southwest London to northwest London and by that time the temperature was rising. With the temperature well above freezing, the warning of freezing rain was lifted.

Still, hours after the warning was no longer in force, the local paper was still carrying the story on their website. Why had the picture and story not been taken down? Worse, the story had evolved. Freezing rain was now falling well to the east of London leaving highways dangerously slick. The was no mention of this.

A little sleuthing revealed that the image of an icy mirror also ran Sunday in the Sarnia Observer with an ice storm story.

There are indications the image is a file photo from the Sun Media archives. Maybe I am wrong about the source of the image, but I wait to be corrected.

Newspaper sales are down. No wonder. Newspapers are playing fast and loose with the news. Running an uncredited file picture with a news story is not journalism.

Sun Media and Quebecor need to hire more staff. They need more reporters and photographers, and editors too. Sadly, that won't happen until hell freezes over.

Addendum: This is not the only instance of the paper under Sun Media and Quebecor using questionable file art. Recently, a serious story on Canada's top court handling the appeal of a lower court 'bawdy house' ruling was accompanied with a silly piece of file filler.

And the very worst example of faux photojournalism that I have come across was the use of hired models to illustrate a story on going topless at the beach. The Ottawa Sun faked a number of images and then moved them to the Canadian Press. CP in turn moved them to the Associated Press.

Years later one of the images popped up in The New York Times as visual proof that women with breasts bare are commonly found on beaches near the Canadian capital.

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