The Failure in Crowd-Sourcing News Photos

© Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

At a time of cost cutting for media budgets, lots of news organizations imagine that user-generated content can fill the void. But the recent failure of crowd-sourced news photos of Hurricane Sandy, and the shortage of coverage of other climate change-fueled disasters around the world, demonstrate how far we are from truly democratizing the medium of photography. Photographers worry that the lowering of technological barriers means “everyone’s a photographer now,” but in fact, the number of people who can take and share news photos is still limited by economics, infrastructure and geography.

Now that news organizations have quit crowd-sourcing instantaneous images of the approaching storm, we are seeing enterprising professional photojournalists who are focused less on flooded tunnels and wrecked cars, and have been seeking out the less obvious stories behind the slow process of rebuilding, rehousing the displaced, and supporting those underserved by relief efforts. (The New York Times photographer Ruth Fremson’s November 2 coverage of people coping without power, elevators, heat or  a sense of security on the upper floors of public housing projects is one example.)

Among the critics of the media’s immediate response to the storm, photographer Kenneth Jarecke  and Prison Photography’s Pete Brook  (who gathered a round-up of storm coverage) seem most irked by the poor quality of many of the images editors chose to publish (by professionals commissioned to shoot on iPhones and by amateurs).  “Most of the photographs are REALLY bad,” Jarecke wrote. “It’s history. It changes people’s lives. You’re not allowed to make excuses or drop the ball, but sadly most of you did.”

As a New Yorker who was seeking up-to-date information about friends and loved ones the day after the storm made landfall, I’ll forgive esthetic lapses in favor of timely and useful information. The problem was, amateur photographers don’t seem to know how to write captions, and they lack  journalistic instincts.

“Instagram” implies instantaneousness, but as these photos remained on websites without time stamps, they became misleading and confusing. When you can’t reach your uncle in New Jersey or your friend in Red Hook, a photo of a flooded street or a downed power line vaguely captioned “New York, NY” or even “Avenue C” is useless when there’s no indication whether it was taken before, during, or after high tide.

A more persistent problem, however, is the narrowness of the coverage: The crowd doing the crowd-sourcing was not large or diverse.  The interactive map of readers’ photos that The New York Times put together shows the story: A lot of people in the suburbs and select parts of New York City seem to have photo equipment and the means to share their photos. And a startling percentage of them used these tools to photograph fallen trees. (As Jarecke wrote: “This just in…a tree fell in Brooklyn.”)

Many professional photojournalists are now working with dedication to cover the hardship in many areas –some totally ignored in amateur crowd-sourced imagery. People whose homes are flooded have more important things to do than document their lives for the edification of strangers like me. But more than two weeks after the storm struck the US, there are still gaping holes in the coverage.

As noted recently on the blog for En Foco, the non-profit devoted to supporting diversity in photography, the devastation Sandy wrought in Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas has been missing from news in the States, though Sandy killed dozens and left thousands homeless in the Caribbean.  Heavy rains in Haiti, still struggling after the 2010 earthquake, are slowing recovery and may lead to food shortages. (For one of the few photo stories we’ve seen on the storm’s effect in the Caribbean, see “The Other Side of Sandy: Caribbean Devastation.” )

Meanwhile in Nigeria, the worst flooding in 50 years has displaced an estimated 2.1 million people and killed 400, according to the UN. But so far, except for a few aerial photos used on NGO web sites, Gideon Mendel, who was this month photographing in Nigeria as part of his continuing project on climate change, Drowning World,  is the only photojournalist we’ve seen who has documented the unfolding crisis there.  Given predictions the floods will cause food shortages and waterborne diseases, in a few months Nigeria could become one more famine-in-Africa story, presented in the media without context or explanation.

Photos—good ones —can drive news coverage. But it’s hard to say for sure that we’d know more about how people are coping in Haiti or Cuba or Nigeria if everyone in those countries had smartphones and Instagram accounts. Good photos take enterprise and curiosity—more photos of fallen trees aren’t enough to get American editors and readers to shed their blinkered focus on news from the developed world. But given the economics of newsgathering now, the media is unlikely to restore their budgets for foreign bureaus or overseas reporting. So who’s left to provide insights on the lives of people far from media centers?

As the clamor to address climate change grows in the US, attention has to be paid to how these dramatic weather events affect people in poorer nations without  infrastructure or resources to cope with disaster and loss. Unless media organizations widen their view of what is relevant news, we can only hope that the day comes when in fact everybody is a photographer, and a good one at that.

(Thanks to John Edwin Mason for his view of how the widespread adoption of cellphones might –someday–provide people in Africa “their first opportunity to represent themselves in photos, rather than to being photographed largely by professional outsiders.” See “Déjà vu All Over Again.”
* Update: On November 18, Mason looked at how access –or lack of it– to smartphones and the internet is playing out in the propaganda war by Israelis and Gazans posting images on Instagram. See his post here.)

* Photo: Landswan Elam, right in back, got a chess lesson in Red Hook (published November 2, 2012). © Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

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13 Responses to “The Failure in Crowd-Sourcing News Photos”

  1. The Failure in Crowd-Sourcing News Photos | The Click Says:

    [...] Link: PDN Pulse » Blog Archive » The Failure in Crowd-Sourcing News Photos the recent failure of crowd-sourced news photos of Hurricane Sandy, and the shortage of coverage of other climate change-fueled disasters around the world, demonstrate how far we are from truly democratizing the medium of photography [...]

  2. Tim Says:

    While I agree with your critique of crowd sourcing, I disagree with your unquestioning acceptance that Sandy or any destructive storm is linked to climate change.
    I realize there are scientist who point to certain facts and link them together to claim it’s because of climate change.
    It needs to be pointed out, the last Cat 3 hurricane to hit us, Hurricane Wilma, was almost 7 year ago . The longest period the nation has gone without a hit from a major hurricane since the government began keeping records in 1851.
    We should take reasonable steps to protect us from such weather events. For instance, Mayor Bloomberg should have spent more time worrying about protecting New York Harbor from storm surge instead of banning the Big Gulp.
    Climate Change has been going on since the earth was formed and I think it’s hubris to claim human activity is a cause.

  3. Are you one of the crowd? | we produce beautifully crafted multimedia Says:

    [...] thought-provoking read about citizen journalism on PDN. (and follow the links, some compelling material there too). Be [...]

  4. PDN Pulse » Blog Archive » The Failure in Crowd-Sourcing News Photos | Steve Troletti Nature and Wildlife Photographer | Scoop.it Says:

    [...] PDN Pulse » Blog Archive » The Failure in Crowd-Sourcing News Photos From pdnpulse.com – Today, 7:07 AM [...]

  5. breye Says:

    If you can’t manage to find a way to run pictures bigger than the size of this text box, you should just stop running them at all. And you’re a photo website. Lame.

  6. Holly Hughes Says:

    Breye, if you would like to see Ruth Fremson’s photo in greater glory, I recommend you follow the link we provided and see her entire slide show.

  7. Bex Says:

    Instagram is the ‘Comic Sans’ of photography – it pushes the buttons most for those who can’t take pictures for themselves.

  8. Maija Says:

    “Unless media organizations widen their view of what is relevant news, we can only hope that the day comes when in fact everybody is a photographer, and a good one at that” This is exactly what crowd sourced photography is about- with mobile photographers media has access to “photographers” or eyewitnesses on-the-spot to get the news photos they need and that they might not be able to get otherwise (for example time wise, its slow and expensive to sent out a professional photographer for a fender-bender, limited resources etc.) and to draw attention to news and events hyperlocally that would not make the news otherwise, but what people are interested in reading about.

    Having said that, it certainly does not in my view reduce the need for professional high quality photography and (photo)journalism. I see crowd sourced photography as adding value to that by providing wider view on, for example, the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy. Should there have been more coverage of other areas affected by Sandy – yes. But would that have been more easy if there would have been more on-the-spot photographers – probably.

  9. Tragedy & Photojournalism « penguinico Says:

    [...] recently read an article ‘The Failure in Crowd-Sourcing News Photos’. The article talks about how in this day and age almost everybody can be called a photojournalist. [...]

  10. Oliver Lang Says:

    Real time curation of Hurricane Sandy images from Instagram did occur here:
    http://mobilephotogroup.com/blog/editorial/hurricane-sandy-live-curated-feed-of-instagram-photos-on-the-themobilephoto-blog/

    The experience was then discussed here:
    http://connect.dpreview.com/post/0914189863/tracking-hurricane-sandy-on-instagram

    The idea that real time Instagram based images will replace dedicated photojournalists is ridiculous.

    The purpose of public sourced real time images is poorly defined by existing media and photographic outlets. Applying existing models and interpretations of photography to such images is an unimaginative and ineffective approach.

  11. Carl May Says:

    Crowd sourcing is just another way to avoid using professionals who know what to photograph and how to photograph it. It’s part of dumbing down publications, lowering image standards, and devaluing images.

  12. Thinking of going pro? « Focus Canada Says:

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  13. Rohn Engh Says:

    Au contraire, Mademoiselle… Journalists of a generation ago, with their fedoras and clunky typewriters and 4×5’s would just now be getting the full impact of the aftermath of the Great Storm of 2012 out to us. Thanks to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and other social media, we learned (about the events) as they were happening. Can you imagine how social media would have served us at the time of the President Kennedy assassination? The Warren Commission would have been unnecessary and the Zapruder film now seems archaic compared to the tons of visual evidence the crowd sourcing photos would have uncovered. Esperanto is finally here and social media has been the engine. -RE