Photographs used on Twitter don’t make great journalism

Duane Dailey

Storytelling, an ancient art, gains relevance today.

As humans learned to talk, storytelling became part of our culture. Caveman families sat around the fire sharing stories. Words captured the tale of that day.

Soon, caveman pictures on the walls showed stories. That crudely opened the way for photojournalism, I speculate.

After an intense week of Missouri Photo Workshop in Mountain Grove, I continue thinking about using storytelling.

The New York Times this week tells of the rise of Behaviorist Economics. Two recent Nobel Prize winners in economics have been “Behaviorists.” The Nobel awards went to psychologists. This form of economics is quite different from economics I studied at MU. Economics was taught there as logical science. Decisions come from realities expressed in numbers.

Now, my favorite book is “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman that first psychologist Nobel winner I mentioned.

His slow thinking is based on formulas of economics to make decisions. It’s so logical. But studies by psychologists show a quite different world. We all prefer “fast” thinking. We even make decisions by jumping to conclusions.

Kahneman puts it in simple terms. We decide economic decisions, based on stories not numbers.

We want quick answers. We don’t want to do the math. That’s hard work. We use intuition.

Unlike my math-oriented father, I favored words over arithmetic. I became a journalist, a story teller. Taking economic courses seemed logical. But, that was hard work. But from economics, I learned to write stories about numbers.

Numbers and words combine well in journalism. But, the stories must be told in words that everyone finds easy to read. Economics from scientists are vital in agriculture. But, they need to be told in stories of simple-to-understand words of journalism.

Here’s an overlooked part of journalism we must not let fade. Pictures are “fast” reads. Show and tell teaches.

In MPW70, I helped on the word side of teaching. At the beginning, I told workshoppers they would learn photos and journalism. That is pictures and words. The workshop popularity draws applications by the hundreds. Forty get in.

Here’s what I see in today’s applicants: Lack of understanding of storytelling with photos. I grew up in a time rich in photojournalism. LIFE magazine taught me to tell stories with pictures. Photo stories contain visual narratives. Done right, they have an opener to set the scene. Then come details. Finally, stories end with a strong closer photo. Looking at pictures you get the flow of the story quickly.

Good photo stories need strong words to confirm and explain what we see. Captions and text must be easy to read and understand. Together, pictures and words gain power.

Today, we see more photos in our daily news gathering. Almost every Twitter or Facebook story has a photo. To my eyes, there are lots of bad images passed off as photos. Not good.

A selfie or a photo of a dinner plate doesn’t tell that much. Worse, the words are incomplete.

Yet our population has been taken over by bad on-line photojournalism.

In MPW, we teach photographers to wait for the decisive moment. Catch action, as it happens. No posed photos. Avoid fakes.

As a profession, we lose to the cellphones. People grow used to quick and uninspired photos. Dull indeed, when you know the power of real photos. In my opening talk, I told workshoppers I want to see photos that stop us cold. I want to laugh. Some photos make us cry. Those photos have power.

With dropping profits in print journalism, there’s little space open for photo stories. In olden day, newspapers held pages for picture stories. I don’t see those today.

There’s opportunity for real photo stories online. Do web readers have an attention span for a seven-photo story? I’m not sure. The behaviorists may not realize how quickly we read online, with time wasted on bad tweets.

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