Brave New World – digital news processes

First published British Journal of Photography, 2006

August 18th, 2006Stephen Mayes

Technology has changed the business of gathering news and it’s changing how news is perceived. STEPHEN MAYES considers the opportunities and responsibilities facing news producers and consumers in the digital age.

In a dramatic convulsion that has lasted little more than five years photography has been eliminated from the newsroom, replaced by electronic processes that have revolutionized how news imagery is produced and consumed. Pressures of time and cost have forced the pace, and while we have adopted the new digital tools we have not yet adapted our thinking to the new environment. So fast has been the change that we don’t yet have standards in place to control the digital revolution. We are clinging to old rules in the hope that they will support us in the new world but they don’t fit. Put simply, we live in confused times.

Consider the fear of manipulation. PhotoShop panic has gripped editors as they fixated on the easy-to-do and hard-to-detect consequences of the new technology and we have indeed seen some egregious examples of mistreated imagery. The fear of distorted fact is justified, but it’s not new and it’s probably the least significant consequence of the digital revolution. The history of photography abounds with examples of pictures that have been cropped, chopped and changed to deceive and we have learned that no regulation can govern deliberate distortion. The best defence remains the viewers’ knowledge and trust in the ethics, integrity and reputation of the producers. It is our duty to remain vigilant against abuse, and this much has not changed.

Meanwhile we struggle with contradictory attempts to regulate the new technology with results that confuse more than they clarify. There are contradictory policies even within the most scrupulous publications; what are we to make of magazines that proclaim the sanctity of news imagery inside the book, but routinely manipulate the cover image on the grounds that there’s a difference between reporting news and selling the magazine; or the common acceptance of retouched portraiture; or newspapers that composite images and call the results “photo illustration”? There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of this, but the lack of accepted standards confuses readers and strikes fear in the hearts of editors.

In focusing on the processes of professional news production it is easy to overlook the greatest revolution of all, which is the new role of the consumer. Our habits of information consumption have been transformed in the digital age. We live in a world where news, art and advertising co-exist seamlessly and today’s consumer typically grazes two or more media simultaneously: we’re online with the TV on, the sound turned down, the radio turned up and a newspaper on our lap. We are wholly oriented to entertainment. Information is processed into factoids, simplified statements and headlines; our “readers” live in a world where their journalism is more opinion-driven than information-driven, they are looking for interpretation and they want their “news” to reflect their values more than they want it to deliver information.

There is an exciting positive aspect to this, which is that as viewers become familiar with digital processes they are getting smarter. No longer passively absorbing a single feed of information, today’s audience inhabits a wider cultural environment and in many ways they are ahead of the professionals. The viewer isn’t troubled by arcane debates about reality, they are familiar with illustration and interpretative representation, and they already understand that photography is not simply about facts but is also about metaphor. While the professionals struggle to make new rules for the new media, our audience has overtaken us.

Even more important than the new process of digital production is the new process of distribution. The digital age is built around the Internet and our audience that we could once describe as the “consumer” is no longer on the receiving end of our output; they are active participants and co-producers of the news. The power of the phone camera and the blog cannot be overstated. It is now commonplace for journalists to measure their coverage against the likely response of the bloggers,

With all this, the search for truth gets even harder. The technology that should be our servant has taken control of our information channels. The process of production and distribution of information has transformed the nature of news. Our vision is blurred and it is not clear if and when normal service will be resumed.

At time of writing Stephen Mayes was Director of the Image Archive at Art And Commerce
and Secretary to the jury of the World Press Photo competition