Poynter is “the world’s leading instructor, innovator, convener and resource for anyone who aspires to engage and inform citizens in 21st century democracies,” according to their website.

Graphic courtesy of The Poynter Institute. (PRNewsFoto/The Poynter Institute)

It was no surprise, then, that they published an article advising digital journalists on how to find the right images for their stories. Formatted as a conversation between two Poynter employees, Kristen Hare and Ren LaForme, the piece goes into all things image-related when it comes to writing stories.

“Congratulations on stooping to a new low.” -Commenter Jim Colton

Written as it was from the point of view of two journalists, the article is fairly explicit about its position on the importance of words versus images. While Ms. Hare and Mr. LaForme disagree about the proper time to look for images (Ms. Hare prefers to do so prior to writing, while Mr. LaForme sees it as a “near-final step”), they are in agreement that “it can be an awful, time-consuming process.”

[Screenshot@ Poynter.org]

Despite a lack of enthusiasm when it comes to imagery, the pair repeatedly state how important it is. “Art matters,” LaForme says, “Images matter.” Without them, “articles…show up as boring text blocks that few will see and even fewer will click through.” While implying pictures have only secondary importance–relevant only insofar as they “get anyone to read an online article”–the two stress that they are a necessarily evil, following this conclusion with their own advice on how to find the right picture.

And this is where it all went wrong.

“Awesome images that you don’t have to pay for”

Detailing solutions on how to find proper images for a story, LaForme, unsurprisingly, lists “a couple of sites…that will help you find awesome images that you don’t have to pay for.” Among them are sites like Unsplash, Creative Commons, Flickr, and Pixabay. He doesn’t, however, go on to list sites with images that you can pay for, only briefly mentioning that one of their colleagues–who we can assume is paid–also has a collection of stock images she has offered for their use.

The article then ends with a cute exchange between the hosts:

Hare: “Hey guess what. I searched Unsplash for an image for this story and found so many good ones so fast. Thank you!” 

LaForme: “I just hope nobody uses up all the good robot photos before I can get a chance. Don’t steal my bots!”

[Screenshot @ Poynter.org]

As you might have guessed, the photography industry didn’t take too kindly to what they considered a onetime-ally’s decision to recommend ways of using their professional services for free. Given the precarious state of journalism itself–another industry where work is often sought for free–many found hypocrisy in these journalists’ decision to devalue another creative industry.

Ouch. [Screenshot @ Poynter.org]

This community, whose concerns are being broadly articulated by Zack Arias in his discussions about Unsplash and others, took to Poynter’s comments section to express their displeasure. The results were ugly, often going after the journalists and their profession themselves:

  • “Thank you /sarcasm for help fostering the race to the bottom. I’ll look for some free writing for my next photo essay.”
  • “Hi, photojournalist here. Isn’t this site supposed to support journalists? Why not put together an article where editors can find cheap writing labor? This is f**king ridiculous.”
  • “[The article] shows the lack of respect at Poynter for visual journalism and especially the role of Picture Editors in a journalism .”
  • This has to be the worst article ever on a professional journalism organizations website. How to find free content!!!!…..Poytner you should be ashamed of yourselves.”
  • I wonder how the writers at Poynter might feel if other writers supplied there employers with free content. I don’t think they’d be encouraging that practice.”

[Screenshot @ Poynter.org]

Residing as I do on both sides of the aisle here, I’m torn. Free photo sharing sites–whether we like it or not–are a reality, and for many digital journalists working at outfits without a budget for images, they are an invaluable tool. Poynter’s decision to provide a list of such sites–while it would have been better had they included paid sites as well–isn’t necessarily advocacy on the sites’ behalf as much as the provision of guidance–as we’ve come to expect from Poynter– for hungry journalists striving to be heard.

Notice the prices. [Screenshot @ Poynter.org]

Still, the flippancy with which the authors discuss the importance of images, as well as their neglect of the unfortunate reality facing photographers today who have to compete with free labor, is seriously disappointing for an organization which prides itself on “inform[ing] citizens [the] 21st century.” Rather than acknowledging the  dog-eat-dog conditions of digital media landscapes, they resort to irresponsible gushing like LaForme’s declaration that “My latest image love affair is Unsplash.”

I think we can all do better.

[Screenshot @ Poynter.org]

Feature Image Courtesy Pawan Sharma