Category Archive: News
Defamation, Girls, and pictures through a window: recent legal news affecting photography and copyrightMar 25, 2014 by M. Scott Brauer 1 Comment »
There’ve been a bunch of legal developments in the world of photography and copyright in the past couple weeks. Here are a few things that have been on my radar that all have relevance to freelance and staff photographers in the US:
- A woman’s photograph was used in a New York State Division of Human Rights advertisement stating that she is HIV positive. The woman did not sign a model release, but Getty argued that the real culprit in the case is the State of New York. A judge recently ruled that the issue should be taken to trial rather than dismissing the case, as Getty had hoped. The woman seeks $450,000 in damages, according to the New York Daily News.
- A new law has made it illegal to take photos of people without their permission in Hungary. An April 2013 post on the New York Times’ Lens Blog has good coverage of other strict privacy laws around the world, including France’s principle of droit d’image. I haven’t read the original Hungarian law and don’t have extensive knowledge of privacy law around the world, but it seems that the new law in Hungary outlaws the taking of photos without permission, not just the publication of photos without permission; this seems like a new development in photography-related law. Recent legal efforts to regulate paparazzi behavior around celebrities’ children in California would similarly limit the act of photography and not just publication.
- A judge has dismissed the invasion of privacy lawsuit against Arne Svenson for his photographs through windows of a Manhattan apartment building. The judge ruled that Svenson’s photos are protected by the First Amendment. At the time the photos were first shown last year, The Atlantic Cities posted a comprehensive look at the issues surrounding Svenson’s work.
- Calumet Photo (website now down) filed for bankruptcy, leaving employees without pay or explanation. Calumet served as the only local photo rental house in many markets around the US, so their absence will be sorely felt by many working photographers. Calumet also did camera repair work, and many customers have been left wondering what will happen to their gear that was in for service at the time of the bankruptcy. Others had rented gear and now don’t know how or when to return it.
- The defamation lawsuit against Institute photographer and documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield brought by the subjects of her excellent documentary Queen of Versailles (wiki) has been thrown out. An arbitrator for the Independent Film and Television Alliance stated that “Having viewed the supposedly egregious portions of the Motion Picture numerous times, [the Arbitrator] simply does not find that any of the content of the Motion Picture was false.” By the way, I recently saw Greenfield speak, and she provided a fascinating and revealing look at her process and how her work, from this documentary to her early work on the French aristocracy to girl culture to rich children, fits together. If you’re near one of her lectures, I’d strongly recommend going.
- The 9th District Court of the United States recently ruled that Alaska Stock had valid copyright registration for images in its collection, despite only listing some of the image authors and titles. This one deals with the nitty-gritty of copyright registration, but it’s a departure from an earlier ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York regarding Corbis’ copyright registration on behalf of its contributors. You can read an explanation of all of this at Photo Attorney.
- A police officer forcibly removed Baltimore Sun photo editor Chris Assaf from public space outside the scene of a police-involved shooting. The Sun’s Darkroom blog has the story about what happened, and it fits right alongside other cases in which police have overstepped their bounds in limiting press access in public areas. Baltimore Sun http://darkroom.baltimoresun.com/2014/03/in-defense-of-the-first-amendment/#1
- The Beastie Boys and GoldieBlox http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/18/beastie-boys-and-toy-company-settle-lawsuit-over-ads-use-of-girls/“>have reached a settlement regarding the unauthorized usage of the Beastie Boys’ song Girls in a GoldieBlox ad (the music has now been replaced) that went viral last year. The ad was for a product that encouraged young girls to build and construct, and at the time, commentators felt that it was a positive appropriation of a misogynistic song. People argued “fair use” or that the Beastie Boys should just let it happen, despite a stipulation in Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s will that read “in no event may my image or name or any music or any artistic property created by me be used for advertising purposes.” The settlement requires that GoldieBlox post an apology on their website (now visible at the bottom of the homepage) and donate a percentage of the company’s revenues to “one or more charities selected by Beastie Boys that support science, technology, engineering and mathematics education for girls.” That strikes me as a great solution: the Beastie Boys’ art is not used against their will and donation achieves GoldieBlox’s (and hopefully everyone’s) goal of getting young girls interested in topics usually dominated by boys.
Getty’s latest move in the stock photography market has been met with shock and horror. 35 million of Getty’s images are now free to embed, unwatermarked, for “noncommercial use,” which includes websites that run advertisements (see the image embedded above). In an interview with PDNPulse, Craig Peters, Senior Vice President of Business Development, Marketing at Content Images at Getty, says that while there is no current plan for this embed system to result in money going to photographers, at some future point, Getty might add advertising into the embedded images (as YouTube does) and photographers would get a cut of that. “This is their content, and if we generate any revenue from that content, we not only have the obligation, but we have every intent to share that revenue,” he said.
Here’s a collection of reactions to the news from around the photography world. Unsurprisingly, people are not excited about this development:
- Getty Images Image Embed: Progressive or Destructive? by PhotoShelter CEO Allen Murabayashi (and check out his 2008 post, How Getty Is Killing the Stock Photo Industry)
- Getty did what? at the Digital Asset Management for Photographers blog
- Industry concerned about Getty Images’ free-for-all approach at the British Journal of Photography
- Getty’s move is cynical but inevitable, says British Press Photographers’ Association at the British Journal of Photography
- 10 facts about Getty Images’ embed feature at the British Journal of Photography
- Getty Images makes 35 million images free in fight against copyright infringement at the British Journal of Photography
- Getty’s Craig Peters on Why Free Images Are Good for Photographers, And for the Photo Industry at PDNPulse. Be warned, it’s heavy on positive PR speak. Example: “We’ve informed Getty contributors through a number of channels. I haven’t seen every reaction, but those I’ve talked with, or who have e-mailed me, have been incredibly positive.”
- Monetizing Getty’s 35M Image Archive via FREE Editorial Uses by John Harrington
- GettyMart and Their 35 Million Free Images by Todd Bigelow
- Getty Images blows the web’s mind by setting 35 million photos free (with conditions, of course) by Joshua Benton at Harvard’s Neiman Journalism Lab
- Getty Images Are Now Free For Online Editorial Use at A Photo Editor
Regarding all of this, I’ve seen a few photographers on facebook saying they’re pulling their images from Getty’s collections. I don’t have any images available through Getty, but if the past is any indication (Hume be damned), other stock houses will likely follow Getty’s lead. Keep an eye on this. I think Todd Bigelow and John Harrington are correct that Getty’s interest in making these images out for free is the browsing data that surrounds the image. Licensing directly to blogs for small fees hasn’t really worked out, if you remember the Associated Press debacle a few years back, but getting (and selling) analytics relating to image usage is likely worth a lot.
In other Getty news, the Getty/Flickr licensing partnership started in 2008 will be terminated at the end of current content agreement. PetaPixel has the details, which makes it sound like this is just temporary as the Yahoo/Flickr and Getty work out details for a new agreement.
“A ruling by an administrative law judge on Thursday held that the Federal Aviation Administration lacks clear-cut authority to ban the commercial use of drones in the continental U.S.” -Wall Street Journal
In January, I wrote about the legal issues of using drones for journalism in the US. This week, administrative law judge Patrick Geraghty struck down a $10,000 FAA fine against Raphael Pirker, a drone videographer, stemming from the 2007 filming of a University of Virginia advertisement using a 5-pound drone. The judge stated that the FAA lacks authority to regulate commercial drone usage, and as such, could not fine Pirker for his drone usage. The judge’s decision can be appealed. The Wall Street Journal also reports that the FAA is considering case-by-case waivers to its ban on commercial drone usage.
I’m very curious to see how drone usage evolves in the US and elsewhere. It could mean a lot for journalism and Facebook has plans to use 11,000 drones to facilitate internet access throughout Africa. As the ACLU has been documenting, however, police agencies across the US are using drones for surveillance and data colleciton.
UPDATE March 10, 2014: The FAA has appealed the decision, saying, “The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground.”
It wouldn’t be February without debate and controversy surround the annual World Press Photo awards. In past years, the chattering classes (that includes us at dvafoto) have gone back and forth on the images or techniques given awards, this year questions have been raised about the voting process itself.
Looking through the year’s winners, I thought there wouldn’t be any debate; the categories this year were filled with strong work from many of the year’s major (and soon-to-be-major) news events. John Stanmeyer‘s winning image, one of my favorite pictures of the year, seemed like a subtle choice for the top award. It’s an image that regards marginalized people with a sense of humanity and dignity, rather than using people from the developing world as puppets for pity or handwringing. The subjects, with cell phones aloft, are people with families and histories and futures, trying to communicate in a situation beyond their control. The photo rises above the usual sex, drugs, and war tropes that dominate the major photojournalism contests.
The selection of this image has not escaped controversy. As duckrabbit first pointed out, John Stanmeyer (the winning photographer) and Gary Knight (World Press Photo jury chair) are business partners (full disclosure: I interned at VII in 2005-6). The photojournalism industry is a small one–though that can also be debated, especially if we look outside of the US and western Europe–and it’s inevitable that the judges of these major contests will know or have worked with the photographers whose work wins awards, since both tend to come from the upper echelons of the photojournalism industry. In this case, Knight and Stanmeyer’s ties are very close. In a World Press Photo video discussing the winning image (above), Knight says that he voted the story out of the competition, but the jury kept the image in the running for a single award. Speaking with the New York Times’ Lens Blog, Knight said that he tried to recuse himself from the jury when the image was considered, but that contest regulations did not allow that. Because of this, we must rely on trust that the award was reached in a fair manner. Even the appearance of unfairness in the judging process, however, undermines the award. If nothing else, there is now a strong reason for World Press Photo to amend their the contest rules and create a procedure for dealing with apparent conflicts of interest in the judging. Ironically, it was in a press release announcing Knight as jury chair that World Press Photo said they would alter the rules to increase transparency for examining digital files for ethical violations after the controversy over Paul Hansen’s winning image last year.
I’m not sure that Stanmeyer’s and Knights close ties are the largest issue here. Knight has said that looking at the images entered in the contest, the industry lacks resources to cover the year’s important issues, though he says that is not the case with the winning images. Furthermore, 8% of images chosen for the final round of judging had to be thrown out due to ethics violations. And only 14% of entrants to the contest were women (that number is under “Data on Entries” in David Campbell’s post as secretary of the jury). We’ve written before about sexism and gender bias in the photography industry, but this is a stark statistic.
By the way, here is a video of Gary Knight talking about some of the other winning entries:
There have been a number of responses to the awards and analyses posted online. Here are a few that I found most interesting (some linked above):
- World Press Jury secretary David Campbell’s World Press Photo 2014 contest: Reflections from the Secretary’s seat
- BagNewsNotes’ Thoughts on John Stanmeyer’s 2014 World Press Winning Photo
- Conscientious Redux’s 57th World Press Photo of the Year – A Few Thoughts
- Alessia Glaviano’s reflections as a member of the World Press Photo People category jury.
- Gary Knight’s conversation with the British Journal of Photography, in which he laments that the awards are dominated by a few large photo institutions.
- Susie Linfield’s thoughts that the awards this year reflect dignity and hope
- duckrabbit’s World Press Photo: great pics and the usual incest
- Paul Melcher’s Photojournalism is not a Competition
- Lens’ The World’s Best (Unaltered) Photos
- World Press Photo win is ‘bittersweet’, says John Tlumacki of his Boston Marathon bombing image
- Martijn Kleppe’s collection of discussion relating to World Press Photo 2013, for these links and more
First-world problems or real problems? Western journalists are whining about Sochi Olympics hotels (updated)Feb 7, 2014 by M. Scott Brauer 5 Comments »
— Stacy St. Clair (@StacyStClair) February 4, 2014
I’ve spent about 10 months in Russia over the past eight or nine years, in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but also in more remote cities such as Vorkuta, Ufa, Petrozavodsk, and Voronezh. Even in Moscow, where the hotel stood next to the Russian Foreign Ministry and the rooms was listed at about $175/night, there were substantial issues with water and heat.
Travel in Russia is not easy, and that’s why some of the viral complaints by journalists at the Sochi Olympics seem naive and privileged. Much of the world can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet. Much of the world can’t depend on clean water. Much of the world doesn’t have American breakfast food in the morning.
But there are valid issues coming through in the reports from the media village in Sochi. There are security issues. Some of the water is unfit even for bathing (West Virginia knows about that all too well). Much of the infrastructure is unfinished. There are stray dogs in hotels. By connecting to wifi in the Olympic village, you can be assured that
your computer will be hacked and your data will be stolen. (See Update II below)
The Washington Post has the largest collection of journalists’ complaints about their hotels, calling the experiences “hilarious and gross.” Deadspin got in on the act, saying “Staying in Sochi is a Hilarious Adventure.” The Wire has a wonderful analysis of some of these complaints, classifying them either as “real problem” or “first-world problem.” Can’t flush the toilet paper? First-world problem. Water unfit for bathing? Real problem. Margaret Coker, blogging for the Wall Street Journal, tells journalists to stop complaining, offering a good read on the scope of these complaints.
In fact, many of the images purported to be from the Sochi Olympics site are not from Sochi or Russia at all. The Telegraph leads their story about these complaints with a picture of three office chairs facing a toilet. Gizmodo busts some of these photos, finding that many of them have been passed around online for a year or more. The Wire has a similar analysis.
As usual, BagNews has a deeper read on what these reports mean, warning that by saturating news sites with “hilarious” (and sometimes fake) complaints about hotel conditions, readers and viewers lose sight of the real issues surrounding these Olympic Games. Real infrastructure problems need to be reported, but so does the conflict in areas close to the Olympics, Russia’s abuse of human rights, corruption in the construction and production of the Sochi Olympics, and anti-gay legislation and sentiment in the country. These issues deserve the media attention now being diverted to pictures of toilets.
UPDATE: Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister responsible for the Olympic preparations, told the Wall Street Journal that they have surveillance footage of shower usage in journalists’ hotel rooms. A spokesman for Kozak quickly said they don’t have footage of anyone in showers or hotel rooms.
UPDATE II: The reports about Sochi wifi hacking seem to be exaggerated. Vice’s Motherboard site has a deeper look at NBC’s report, which served as the basis for the Yahoo piece linked above. The device infection demonstrations were done in Moscow and required the user to click on malware on a website, just as would happen anywhere in the world. The Trend Micro security expert in the NBC piece has a blog post and white paper detailing the method of infection used in his demonstrations.
A week or so ago I posted this photo from Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant on dvafoto.tumblr.com, but in retrospect we wanted to feature it on the main blog as well. It is an important demonstration of what press freedom and access to power is all about and the inherent hazards in allowing government entities (or any other group) to provide their own coverage. The images may emerge from a democratic government, but they really won’t look much different than the propaganda released from a dictatorship.
This is the essence of a debate that has been raging since the Fall about access to President Obama’s White House (and before that, honestly: Scott wrote about issues of photography in the White House days after Obama took office). Ron Fourniner’s article in The National Journal titled “Obama’s Image Machine: Monopolistic Propaganda Funded by You” has a thorough account of a meeting that took place on October 29 in the office of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. At that meeting New York Times photographer Doug Mills laid out the complaints of the White House Press Corp about access to the President’s activities, and likened the White House’s activities to the Soviet Union’s state-run news agency TASS, whose successor ITAR-TASS, and fellow state-run media RIA-Novosti, is more recently known for supplying famously heroic images of Vladimir Putin to the international media.
Doug Mills’ meeting with Jay Carney was followed up by a letter hand delivered to the White House on November 21st (PDF), signed by a number of prominent media and media advocacy organizations, including the National Press Photographers Association, The New York Times, The White House News Photographers Association, ABC, CNN, NBC, Getty Images and the Associated Press. The AP also issued their own statement about this issue. Santiago Lyon, AP Vice President and Director of Photography, answered questions on the AP’s own blog:
The photos on that page [The White House official Flickr page] are visual press releases and are carefully vetted by administration employees before distribution. Such images are increasingly offered to the media by the White House in lieu of real journalistic access and we and other media organizations find this unacceptable. Media organizations generally do not reproduce written press releases verbatim, so why should we settle for these official images?
Santiago Lyon also penned an op-ed for The New York Times on December 11, 2013: “Obama’s Orwellian Image Control”. If you are interested in this topic, it is a critical piece to read. He reiterates his point above:
The official photographs the White House hands out are but visual news releases. Taken by government employees (mostly former photojournalists), they are well composed, compelling and even intimate glimpses of presidential life. They also show the president in the best possible light, as you’d expect from an administration highly conscious of the power of the image at a time of instant sharing of photos and videos.
And he ends with strong and wise words:
Until the White House revisits its draconian restrictions on photojournalists’ access to the president, information-savvy citizens, too, would be wise to treat those handout photos for what they are: propaganda.
Part of this issue is the distinction between public and private events. Some editors and photographers are arguing that when the White House releases its own images from events on social media – such as Presidents Obama and Bush meeting on Air Force One en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, which was off-limits to the press corp pool also onboard the aircraft – they are demonstrating that the events are not private and are indeed newsworthy. BagNews’ discussion “As Press Battles WH Over Photo Access, Did Media Cross its Own Line Publishing Obama/Bush Mandela Trip Pictures?” provides many good examples of the difference between White House coverage of events and that of the free press, including the Obama/Bush pictures on Air Force One. Another post at BagNews, “Photo Ops and Staging: Beyond White House Access, the Larger Issue is What We Have Access To” by David Campbell, has more examples of the exclusive framing of events that the White House photographers have that they deny members of the press access to.
For more context, photographer David Hume Kennerly talks about his time in the White House in an interview with James Estrin of the New York Times’ Lens Blog. Time Magazine’s Lightbox blog also published an article by former White House photo editor Mike Davis: “The Backstory: Why Photographers Need More Access In The White House”.
Furthering their terrific studies of these issues, BagNews announced this week that the subject of their next salon would be The Debate over White House Photo Access. It will take place on February 9, 2014. I also want to thank Michael Shaw, Publisher of BagNews, for providing me with resources and his insight on this topic.
BagNews argues, rightly, that, “One thing we need are images that address the construction of the image, including pictures showing photographers in the photo, the set-up of the photo-op, or using particular visual strategies such as different angles, depth of field, and framing.” One important function of the press is to create transparency about how the political machine works. Being able to have an independent look at how events are set up and designed is critical in understanding what exactly the events mean.
Time magazine points this out in other ways too with another of Phil Bicker’s great edits of handout photos in a post called “Public Service or Propaganda? Top Handout Photos of 2013″. Bicker posts often on Time Lightbox under the title “Man on the Wire”, and we wrote about one of his post’s last year: “Déjà Vu in 2012″. In this post he shows off all manner of official photographs that have been published in the press.
Besides the White House, Kremlin and the North Korean official news agencies, other notable sources for handout photos include the NTSB (for photos of the crash of Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco and a train crash in New York), NASA (for photos of space research, manned space flight and an unfortunate picture of a flying frog during rocket launch), the Government Communication and Information System of South Africa for pictures of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the U.S. Army for a photograph of Chelsea Manning.
I’ll finish this roundup with two examples of images that cross more obviously in to the sphere of possible-propaganda, images that look like they could be news photographs but are in fact handed out by political organizations: a photo of bodies of victims that Syrian rebels claim were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta and a photograph that the Kenyan Government provided from the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi showing the collapsed roof of a parking garage.
BagNews also provides startling examples of powerful official imagery that has, in one way or another, been made available to the press. “Ready, Aim, Backfire: Police Photographer’s “Rolling Stone Retribution” Photos” examines the photographs of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev leaked by a Massachusetts State Police official photographer. This is an interesting example of how official photographs might actually undermine the official narrative; see BagNews for more on this argument. Another post, from January 6, 2014, “Even if the Police Report Wasn’t Buried by the Holiday, What Photo Would Make Us Understand Sandy Hook?” is a powerful anonymous essay about the police report and evidence photos taken by Connecticut State Police from their investigation into the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012. This post looks closely at the photographs, ponders their meaning (or lack thereof), and asks why they were buried in the Holiday news cycle and rarely published.
The prevalence of handout photos being published in news sources demonstrates the success organizations are having in shaping the narrative they prefer by controlling the photographs that are available of an event. This is something that we should all be aware of, and wary of. There are times and places – for example, the President’s private family dinners and on the launch pad during a rocket ignition – where restrictions on access are acceptable and logical. But so many other times, as clearly laid out in the photos and articles above, this power is being abused. And we the media and the people are right to resist this.
Robert Capa’s Mexican Suitcase (previously on dva) surprised the photography world when it was discovered a few years ago. This week, announcement comes of the discovery of a set of undeveloped negatives from the Ross Sea Party of Sir Ernest Shackleton‘s 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was found frozen in a block of ice in a supply hut established by the ill-fated Robert Falcon Scott Terra Nova Expedition. Conservators from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust found the box of photos (pdf) while restoring the supply depot, and have worked to restore the photos. You can see the collection of 22 photos at the Trust’s website.
Closer to the present, and a bit less interesting, comes the discovery of a lost roll of film taken The Columbian newspaper (of Vancouver, Wash.) photographer Reid Blackburn before the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. The film sat in a box in the back of a studio room at the newspaper for more than 30 years. Blackburn died in the volcano’s eruption a few weeks after the photos were taken. Blackburn’s camera was discovered about a week after his body was found following the blast. This roll of film, comprising mostly aerials of the mountain spewing ash, was recently found by the newspaper’s photo assistant. What interests me most about this case is that I don’t know whether something like this could happen with digital photography. It was a major news event and Blackburn’s photos were being taken for the local paper, National Geographic, and the US Geological Survey. A digital take from such a large event would be immediately distributed and backed-up by each entity and wire services. If, on the other hand, some digital photos were accidentally misplaced and forgotten for 30 years, changing formats, bit rot, and damage to drives, would likely make the photos unreadable.
(links via /r/photography)
I first heard about the death of Molhem Barakat in Syria by way of the above image posted to twitter on Dec. 21. Barakat was killed while covering fighting between rebels and loyalists over the Kindi Hospital in Aleppo, Syria. Covering Syria has been an especially dangerous endeavour for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists, as of this writing, states that 55 journalists have been killed in the country since 1992, all in the past 3 years. However, Barakat’s death raises even more questions.
Many of the reports of Barakat’s death state that he was 17 years old. Reuters has not confirmed this, but nor has the media organization given any age. As usual, duckrabbit is on the case, with a large set of links surrounding Molhem Barakat. British journalist Hannah Lucinda Smith wrote a remembrance for the boy, whom she’d known over the past year. She first wrote about him in an interesting, and provocative, piece called “My friend, the aspiring suicide bomber.” When the boy couldn’t join an Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria, he turned to Reuters to freelance. He was accepted. His work was good, used to accompany articles by major media outlets. Buzzfeed has a collection of some of his most powerful work from the conflict.
But many have been asking just what a 17-year-old was doing working for one of the largest media organizations in one of the most dangerous conflicts in recent history, especially for journalists. NPR’s On the Media broadcast a tremendous piece last September called “The Freelancers’ War,” which lays out what coverage of Syria really means. Although some media organizations have banned the use of reporting from Syria by freelancers, the vast majority of reporting from the conflict remains the domain of freelancers. For some, it’s war tourism. Vice had a particularly telling piece in 2012 called “I went to Syria to learn how to be a journalist.” The freelancers face extreme danger without insurance, training, adequate gear, institutional backing, or even a plan for what to do when things go bad.
After the news of Barakat’s death, people have been wondering why the organization hired a 17-year-old to work in this danger. Corey Pein’s blog post covers the important issues, and includes an empty response from Reuters received by Stuart Hughes.
So the questions remain:
- Was Molhem Barakat 17 when working for Reuters?
- If so, why is a child working for one of the largest media organizations in the world?
- Why would a media organization hire someone who had previously tried to join Al Qaeda?
- Did Reuters provide the expensive camera gear to Barakat?
- What was the agreement between Reuters and the 17-year-old? Was he given safety equipment, training, insurance? What about assistance for his family?
- Does Reuters, or other news organization, regularly employ people under 18 when covering conflict? If not, why now?
Corey Pein has many more questions, all of which demand an answer.
“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.