*The following is an op-ed I did for my Fundamentals of Journalism class at Champlain College.
Journalist love to tell you their opinion, even if you don’t realize it, and despite the fact they’re not “supposed” to.
Think back to 1994 — the year OJ Simpson was suspected of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. At the beginning of the case, the general public didn’t know what to believe; they didn’t know whether or not this figure was innocent, or guilty. Though, someone did know what they thought: Time Magazine.
The Time Magazine and Newsweek OJ Simpson mug shot is one of the most well-known cases of photojournalism bias. The two had been given the same picture of Simpson, but Time decided to show what they thought of Simpson, but not through their writing. While Newsweek published the photo as it was, Time darkened the photo, and added shadows to Simpson’s face. This doctoring, as was analyzed in a New York Times article, “… gave him [Simpson] a more sinister appearance….” Time had decided Simpson was guilty, and thus showed their opinion, their photo becoming the perfect example of the hidden practice of reporting bias through photography in journalism.
In the practice of journalism, it is the responsibility of the journalist to be as objective as possible. No bias or personal opinions are supposed to be displayed about the given subject through writing. Yet, for years, reporters have been sneaking bias into their articles through their leading article image, and images throughout their articles. They’ll report about a political figure’s new bill, be objective in their writing, but their photo will have purposeful angles or lighting. If the reporter likes the bill and the political figure, the image will be bright, and often the image will be at eye level. The politician, of course, will be smiling. On the other hand, if the reporter doesn’t like the politician, you can bet the politician will be in poor lighting, and the politician’s face will be half obscured. The photo will be given its final bias touch if the politician has their mouth open, is in the middle of blinking, or is frowning.
Consider this example. The New York Times published the article “Trump Tells G.O.P. It’s Now or Never, Demanding House Vote on Health Bill” by Thomas Kaplan March 23rd, 2017. The New York Times, classically known for being an objective paper, stays true to that idea in the article. Kaplan states the facts of Trump’s push to close on the republican health care plan, and doesn’t use any suggestive adjectives to imply how he feels about the topic. Yet, the article still has bias. The leading photo is of Congress members, though none of them are smiling. The two representatives talking about the bill both look stressed, and one has his head down with his face in dark light. They are both framed by doors only opened slightly, and three fourths of the photo in dark light. The photo has a bias — physically putting the two in a “bad” light, and catching them in an angle that suggests stress and disarray. Consequentially, the article has a bias: the writer disapproves of the plan and thinks the bill won’t be passed in time.
Reporting, and journalism, are supposed to be objective professions. When bias is introduced into our news, it no longer becomes news. It is a report on an event with an opinion. When all readers are exposed to are opinions, they are limited. Readers are inclined to not have their own opinion, but to consume and believe the bias they read. When we have people continually reading biased opinions, we have people spewing opinions they believe are fact, because that’s what they expect news to be — fact. To pair an article with a bias photo is to give an opinion in a nearly subliminal way. The opinion of the reader becomes guided when the first thing they see is a politician in a bad light.
This sneaky and subtle bias should not be accepted by a profession that is expected to be objective. As readers, we need to acknowledge biased photographs, acknowledge what opinion they might want us to follow, and actively ignore that opinion and focus on the facts and the news. We cannot let ourselves be manipulated by photos, because photography should be objective, just like the writing. Or, as the Bronx Documentary Center, a 150-year-old photojournalism watchdog, puts it: “History unfolds in real time, not at the desire of the photographer.”