Last Thursday, Poynter, the renowned journalism institute, published a conversation between two in-house reporters on how to get free images to go alongside a story. Their message: “No image, no problem.”

The Poynter Institute for Media Studies. (PRNewsFoto/The Poynter Institute)

“No Image, no problem.”

While conceding that stories without images—a.k.a “just a block of text”—typically flounder on social media, their comments have struck many as demeaning to photojournalists. They agree, for example, that finding an image is an “awful, time-consuming process.”

The meat of their story was that for image-strapped newsrooms, free photo sharing websites—like Unsplash and Pexels—can be a great resource to “help you find awesome images that you don’t have to pay for.” The ethics of doing so, meanwhile, only get mentioned on the “One last thought” section gracing the bottom of the page.

Photojournalists and others came out in droves to criticize Poynter for what was now being referred to as “free-photo gate”; I reported on some of it.

In response, Poynter has published two seperate pieces: one, by Poynter-affiliated visual journalist Mark E. Johnson, and another by Poynter president Neil Brown. Here are some of the highlights:


Mark’s Letter

Mr. Johnson [Photo Courtesy Grady College]

“Good visuals increase engagement.”

Mark was clearly distraught that Poynter—many of whose members he considers “dear friends”—had, with their endorsement of the primacy of text over images, “raze[d] everything I have done over the last quarter century” as an advocate for visual journalism.

Rather than cut ties with Poynter, he decided to use their platform to spread his message. In a published letter, he laid out three suggestions for the institute going forward:

  1. Acknowledge the Fury – He asks that they “append a statement” to the original posting—which they refused to take down—”summarizing the outpouring of opposition” it received. [Update: they’ve done this, writing “we heard from many esteemed journalists who were critical of our approach”]
  2. Investigate the Process – He suggests Poynter pursue a “well-reported piece” on how journalists across the globe can “develop the skills to think about the visual aspects of a story,” rather than placing them on the back-burner. 
  3. Training & Payment – Finally, he urges “the development of more training” to help visual and textual editors communicate and learn from each other, as well as pressuring “upper management” to take images seriously. “Good visuals increase engagement,” he reiterates, so “their creation and acquisition is a cost that must be factored into a journalism organization’s business plan.”  


Neil’s Letter

Mr. Brown [Photo Courtesy Tampa Bay Times]

“the realities of an industry”

Mr. Brown, while acknowledging that the article “understandably offend[ed] many,” stressed that the original dialogue in it—reporters discussing how to find free, high-quality images—is a “very real conversation that we know from experience is happening frequently in newsrooms or among small teams of producers.”

These, he says, are “the realities of an industry where many newsrooms don’t have visual journalists as employees anymore.” While their approach was flawed—using “cold, practical terms” that were bound to have “struck a nerve”—this was not meant to be malicious, but an honest reflection of editors’ day-to-day decision making.

Unfortunately, Mr. Brown admits, this approach “didn’t make room for how deep — and personal — the issues run.”



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Feature Image Courtesy mike