Charges dropped against Photography Is Not a Crime blogger for posting police media relations number onlineDec 6, 2013 by M. Scott Brauer No Comments »
This is a local story for me since it involves the Boston Police Department. I’m happy to see a positive resolution, though disappointed that it the situation even arose. At its essence, a blogger was charged with witness intimidation and faced 10 years in prison for posting the publicly-available media relations phone number and email address for the Boston Police Department in a post about police harassment of a man taking video of police activity (video above).
Carlos Miller is the very active blogger behind the Photography Is Not a Crime site, which catalogs instances of photographers and videographers being arrested, detained, harassed, or otherwise interfered with by authorities while taking pictures or video. The blog is a valuable resource in the fight against increased limitations placed on visual media, especially regarding police activity. Miller frequently writes about intimidation and harassment of photographers by police, and entreats readers to write to police departments and lawmakers to fight against these injustices. We’ve covered laws preventing recording police activity before, in addition to other parts of the war on cameras.
In August 2013, Miller published a blog post about a video in which a Boston Police sergeant shoved and harassed a man taking video of police action on a public sidewalk. At the end of that post, Miller told readers to call the Boston Police Department and listed the Public Service Desk customer service number available on BPD’s own website. One reader did just that, recording a short conversation with Boston police spokeswoman Angelene Richardson, who found the recording online and filed a charge against Taylor Hardy for illegal wiretapping (Hardy maintains that permission was granted to record the call; the charge was later dropped). In a post discussing these wiretapping charges, Miller again asked readers to call a publicly available number to ask that charges be dropped. In a later post, Miller said he posted the number to “[allow] readers to contact them to show [BPD] we are paying attention.” After numerous readers called in about the charges, Boston Police Detective Nick Moore filed witness intimidation charges against Carlos Miller and threatened similar charges for anyone who called in.
Miller launched an indiegogo campaign to help with legal fees, ultimately raising $4300 to hire a lawyer. Readers continued to call in to the Boston Police Department, the lawyer mounted legal challenges to the charges, and the case started to draw some media attention. The Boston Police Department eventually folded and agreed to drop all charges against Miller and Hardy. You can read other summaries of the case by PBS and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Of particular note related to the BPD’s actions that started this whole chain of events, in 2011 a federal appeals court ruled against (pdf) Boston police arresting a man for using his cell phone to record police activity in public without permission. The court noted that “changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw.”
“Upworthy rankles some journalists partly because, even as it innocently coos Web readers with tender headlines, the repetitiveness of its style suggests a rather cynical ploy to lasso cheap attention rather than fully engage an audience hunting anything more than a dopamine rush.” -The Atlantic, Upworthy: I Thought This Website Was Crazy, but What Happened Next Changed Everything
For the past year, Upworthy-hosted videos and Buzzfeed listicles have been taking over my facebook feed. It’s been interesting to watch how these sites, and others like them, have come to dominate our news culture. Their headlines are manipulative, almost guaranteed to make you click, but rarely are the informative. You already know the style, and it’s creeping into other news outlets. Here are a few examples from a USA Today story about the emotionally charged headlines employed by Upworthy, Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed:
Coming from journalism, I hate these headlines, and so do others. They editorialize, tell the reader very little about what I’m about to see, and make the reader feel guilty if one doesn’t click them. But it’s been enormously successful for these companies. Upworthy is the fastest growing news site in history, with 30 million unique viewers in May 2013. While at first glance, the site seems like it only repackages videos hosted and created elsewhere, it’s making money through sponsored content and partnerships with organizations such as the Gates Foundation.
Marketing companies now offer advice on how to apply this viral-style headline writing to your small business. And it’s invading the internet. There are a ton of sites trying to clone Upworthy and Buzzfeed’s success, such as ViralNova. They use focus groups and a/b headline testing to find the most clickable headlines. There’s Godvine, a Christian site with headlines such as “See Why These Dogs Are Singing… It’s Way More Important Than You Think” and “He Has Strength, Faith in Jesus and Cerebral Palsy – This Video Will Make You Cry.”
Mainstream news outlets are taking note. The Atlantic recently published “The Case Against Cars in 1 Utterly Entrancing GIF“; Time, always one for Top # lists, has a Viral section with stories such as “The Absolute Grossest Way to Have Your Fortune Read;” Slate’s headlines are starting to change into writing like “This Awesome Ad, Set to the Beastie Boys, Is How to Get Girls to Become Engineers.”
Buzzfeed has been able to do the same thing with photos and gifs. Slate interviewed Buzzfeed founder (and Huffington Post co-founder) Jonah Peretti about how they make photos go viral. As of this writing, “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity.” And while not every post there is a hit–”84 Things That Aren’t On An Everything Bagel” didn’t post quite the same numbers (~41,000 as of this writing)–the site has figured a way to reliably draw traffic to photography. Of course, it’s not the sort of photography that we often write about at dvafoto. But just as Kony2012 showed that it’s possible to get the public interested obscure international issues, there might be something for the photojournalism community to learn from Buzzfeed.
Not all is well at Buzzfeed, though. The provenance of many of Buzzfeed’s images is often a bit questionable. They frequently lift images or whole lists from other sites without attribution or concern for copyright. The 21 Images That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity came from a combination of Ned Hardy posts and Reddit. The site often steals images without asking for permission, particularly troubling when the copyright infringement is used in a sponsored story. One photographer fired back at Buzzfeed, and got them to pay $500 to a charity of his choice, for stealing his photo: “10 Good Reasons BuzzFeed Is Going to Pay My Invoice for Copyright Theft“.
While Upworthy’s sole positive is drawing eyeballs to some worthy stories (here’s a story from my hometown which aired on Rock Center, which I wouldn’t have seen had it not been for Upworthy), I have been impressed by Buzzfeed’s longform journalism section, BuzzReads. Though the headlines can be sensational, the content is good and original. Here are a few stories which have caught my eye recently: I Was Drugged By A Stranger, William Suess Thought He Was An American Until The Day He Was Deported, Was An American College Student Kidnapped By North Korea?, Wildcatting: A Stripper’s Guide to the Modern American Boomtown. Poynter has a nice article about what Buzzfeed’s push into longform reporting might mean.
“What would a Snopes for ViralNova or Upworthy even look like? It could question the sources of the stories and the details of the anecdotes, or provide context for their claims. But could it correct sentiments like, ‘man is fundamentally good’ or ‘we should do better?’ A site specific to this purpose would be more un-viral than anti-viral. Correcting a post like this is like fact checking Chicken Soup for the Soul, or refuting a prayer.” -Buzzfeed, “How Internet Chain Letters Took Over The Media“
Buzzfeed itself has one of the best pieces on how and why this emotionally-charged or nostalgia-infused content is taking over Facebook and the rest of the web. The article argues Upworthy, Buzzfeed, and their ilk substantially resemble chain letters and email forwards (what one MetaFilter commenter called “‘Jesus and kittens love you’ fwd-mails for twentysomething liberals.”).
Snopes.com arose to fact-check viral chain letters, but that doesn’t quite work with Upworthy and the like. Their posts are factual but packaged and reframed in an inspirational or otherwise emotional way. One can’t correct the sentiments in Upworthy headlines such as ‘man is fundamentally good’ or ‘person is brave for confront adversity.’ The best you can do is satirize the style, and thankfully a few people have:
By the way, here are two fantastic satirical exploitations of the Buzzfeed style on Buzzfeed itself: 22 Amazing Things Only a 90s Kid Would Understand, and 7 Fantastic Ways To Distinguish Between Sense And Nonsense. The first was created by what seems to be a Buzzfeed performance artist under the name Spacedog Escargot.
Also, if you use chrome, you can install an extension called Rather to filter Upworthy links, baby pictures, tv spoilers, and anything else you don’t want to see.
Working with Concord Free Press, Gilles Peress‘ latest book, The Rockaways, is being distributed for free via independent bookstores and the internet. The imprint will distribute 3000 copies of the book for free with the stipulation that recipients donate money to a charity of their choice and then pass the book on to another person. It’s an interesting model for fundraising, and the book looks great. In addition to Peress’ photography (there are some images at Feature Shoot, and others at Metro), there are short essays by people affected by Hurricane Sandy, from long-time residents to journalists to youth to artists.
You can request a copy of the book from the Concord Free Press website. The Concord Free Press website also tracks donations reported by recipients of the book. You can also support Concord Free Press by buying one of the items listed in their online shop.
The Wire (official site) is often held up for as a paragon of modern television, and with good reason, but rarely for its cinematography and visuals. Writers have criticized the show for being so plainly shot (David Bordwell calls The Wire “uninspiringly shot” here, for instance), but the video above by Erlend Lavik, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies at the University of Bergen, persuasively argues that The Wire’s plain shooting style belies the complexity of visual metaphors, compositions, and camera use throughout the series. The video is worth a watch…I rarely sit through video online, but made it through the 36 minutes of this essay with ease.
Lavik argues that just as the show doesn’t hold the hands of viewers in subject matter, dialog, characterization, and so forth, the cinematography of the show works subtly and effectively to communicate complex ideas in a visual way. Whereas the current crop of “cinematic” television can be quite heavy-handed with visual styling (Breaking Bad’s over-the-top sepia/yellow-toned scenes are a notable example), The Wire deftly uses camera movements and compositions influenced by documentary filmmaking to create a sense of verisimilitude and honesty in the story, all without really drawing attention to its techniques. The series uses wide compositions, frames within frames, lingering shots, a lack of flashbacks, music used only as experienced by characters, and a variety of other techniques to suss out mood, character, and plot, in a way that few other shows have been able to do, even with much flashier visual language.
If you liked the series, watch the video above. If you haven’t watched the series, watch the show, and then watch the video above.
While we’re at it, here’s a thread on reddit in which the supervising sound editor on the show talks about his work for the series; this comment is particularly interesting. And here’s an interesting oral history of the making of The Wire published last year. Matt and I could both go on and on about this show, having watched it as it aired, but that’s enough for now. Oh, an here’s a post from 2009 about the 100 greatest quotes from the show.
If you were following dvafoto on twitter yesterday, you would have seen our retweet of Jon Levy’s photo of a Libération spread without photos. The British Journal of Photography has a bit more information about the stunt: the French newspaper published an entire issue without photos in concert with the opening of Paris Photo. It’s intended as a show of support for photographers. A note about the special on the front page reads, “Libération vows an eternal gratitude to photography, whether produced by photojournalists, fashion photographers, portraitists, or conceptual artists. Our passion for photography has never been questioned – not because it’s used to beautify, shock or illustrate, but because photography takes the pulse of our world.” This is the first time since the newspaper (wiki) was founded in 1973 that it published an issue without photos.
As you can see above and at the BJP’s coverage, the pages seem empty without photos. Just as when Russian media blacked out photos in protest of the imprisonment of photographer Denis Sinyakov, this Libération issue serves as a stark reminder about photography does for the understanding and communication of news and ideas. Bravo!
Maybe our own M. Scott Brauer, recently returned from a hunting trip in Montana, can give us some better advice than this guy, who just sort of hung out with an Elk while he was trying to take pictures. The video is awkward and asks a lot of questions.
Scott, did this guy do good? Should he have run away screaming? Or stood up and scared the Elk off? (Which was what I was rooting for). Or. better yet, gone for a close-up? Strange video.