Cropping, ‘Shopping and Racism in the Media: Four things to consider in the wake of the AP’s “white people only” photo

The Associated Press issued an apology Friday for its photo of several climate-change activists that had led to charges of racism:

An AP photographer at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland took a picture Friday of five activists, including the well-known Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and Ugandan Vanessa Nakate, who were there to discuss climate change. Preparing to send the image, the photographer cropped out Nakate, leaving a picture of four white women before a scenic mountain backdrop.

The initial explanation for the cropping was that it enabled a close-up of Thunberg, and that it removed a distraction — a building behind where Nakate was standing.

The image, shown here solely for educational purposes, gives you both the original (bottom) and the cropped version (top) (via Black Voice News):


The backdrop on the photo is busy, but the crop didn’t solve the problem of making it better. You still have the building in the background, the weird pole thing is still sticking out of the person on the left’s head and you have a tree growing out of the shoulders of the two folks on the right. The only real “crop” that would have solved much of anything would be a slight crop on to the shoulder of Nakate to remove the random person from behind the group.

A similarly bad decision, although with the intention of yielding opposite results, took place at my alma mater about 20 years ago. In attempting to make its student body look “more diverse” on the cover of its application brochure, the University of Wisconsin-Madison PhotoShopped the face of a black student into a crowd shot:


The decision led to viral levels of mockery, including in The Onion, with its “Black Guy PhotoShopped In” story, which explained how a university in its piece had to go through “through hundreds of school-newspaper and yearbook file photos before we found a picture of a black guy.”

Madison initially tried to squeeze through on this one, before eventually deciding to destroy the entire run of “‘Shopped” catalogs and rerun it without the alteration.

If nothing else, these incidents demonstrate the awkwardness that media professionals have while dealing with issues of race and visuals. In the case of the AP, officials there noted that everyone will be engaging in racial sensitivity and awareness seminars of some sort. In addition, the organization is challenging people to better engage issues of race and its portrayal in its media efforts. (In short, I’m guessing the unvarnished message was, “Oh crap… Let’s NOT do something THAT STUPID again!”)

The problem with just calling for “awareness” and “sensitivity” is that organizations like AP already have these kinds of statements in play. If you read the SPJ Code of Ethics, it gives you this:

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.

In addition, the NPPA Code of Ethics includes this:

Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.

Simply put, the codes of ethics already tell media practitioners to show the whole story, make sure not to mess with reality and be aware of diversity issues. None of this should come as a shock to professional journalists in the textual and visual realms.

Rather than beat up on AP, here a few points that might help you as you examine this situation and look for ways to avoid this kind of problematic outcome for yourself in the future:

Read the codes: This is pretty self-explanatory, but it helps to remind yourself from time to time what your discipline’s instruction manual gives you for guidance.  If you keep up on these and refresh your memory about them every so often, you can make sure you’re doing the best possible work in the best possible way.

Paranoia is your friend: I use this one a lot, and to be honest, it feels a little awkward to use it here. It would be so much better if we all had diversity, compassion and awareness on the front burner of everything we do in media work. I absolutely believe that. I also know that the ideal and the practical often diverge in daily life, so consider this item as a solid back-up plan.

I find myself asking this question a lot when I’m publishing anything, be it a blog post or a book: “How could this go horribly wrong and really screw me?” The answers don’t always lead to brilliant success, but they do help me avoid a lot of really bad failure.

In short, look at what you are about to do and see how many ways your actions could lead to people becoming upset. For me, I tend to spiral out at least three turns, to the point of wondering what people who tweet in nothing but caps would have to say. I then think, “OK, how much of a defense can I put up when that happens?” If I don’t like the odds and the outcomes, I look at the alternatives until I find one that seems the least painful with the best likelihood of success and I go for it.

Not exactly awe-inspiring or speaking to the better angels of media glory, but it works.

Diversity isn’t a buzzword: We’ve talked about this before on the blog, but it bears repeating and it should be expanded upon. The idea of having a diverse set of individuals in a newsroom or an office or anywhere else where media decisions are made is to provide a wide array of experiences that can inform upon decision-making. It’s not about checking a box or looking good in a group photo. It’s so that the people in the content’s decision-making zone reflect the people for whom they are making content decisions.

If you are lucky enough to work for an organization that espouses that kind of goal and has created a workforce to match it, this is where asking and listening can be a huge benefit both now and later. I don’t have a perfect environment of that nature on a daily basis, but I have been lucky enough to work with people over time who make me “open the aperture” of my mind a lot more.

For example, when I’m dealing with issues of gender, I can hear Tracy Everbach’s voice in the back of my head, poking at the choices I’m making. In terms of LGBTQ issues, several folks who have guest blogged for me sit in my mind and let me play out scenarios of what I should say or how I should say it. Former students and colleagues’ words also rattle around in my head when it comes to issues of race, faith and other similar topics.

Better yet, if I’m not 100% sure on what to do, I can call or text or email them and ask for advice.

Media education goes beyond the tools: We talk a lot in both books about finding ways to put “tools in your toolbox” when it comes to media writing and reporting. The idea is that you can learn a skill that will benefit you as you ply your trade in whichever area of the field you wish to enter.

It pays not to take that metaphor too literally, however, as knowing how to nail down the 5W’s and 1H, take photos or capture video isn’t the start and end of journalism. That’s why we don’t call our Visual Media Design class “How To Use InDesign” or our Photography I course “Nikon and Photoshop Proficiency.” The tools help you do the job, but it’s the human beings and their knowledge of the field that matter more.

The decision made in the case of the AP’s photo is a perfect microcosm of this distinction. The “nuts-and-bolts, technical-rule, use-the-tool approach” can clearly justify the idea of cropping Nakate out. Tighter crops are technically better and the goal of eliminating distracting elements is technically better. That “tool” approach could also justify PhotoShopping out the background distractions or digitally moving Nakate closer to the others.

However, journalism says those would all be no-nos.

The “journalism-as-a-craft” approach would clearly say we don’t alter reality to make the images better. It would also say that social and ethical ramifications of the decisions we make should take a front-row seat in what we do. Thus, cropping the photo (or any of the other things I mentioned above) would do more harm than good, so leave it alone.

Your media education is more than the sum of the technical skills you add to your expertise. It’s about seeing both the forest and the trees and knowing when to see each as important.

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