Why every reporter now needs the instinct of a photographer to succeed

With the sort of reliable frequency which would fill a newspaper distribution manager with pride, I stumble across various debates around the theme of ‘What skills does a journalist need today?’

Until last week, I thought any journalist (and by journalist, in this post I really mean reporter/writer) needed the following:

1. The ability to find a story

2. The ability to write well (for the platform they worked on)

3. An ability to connect and empathise with an audience

4. A sound knowledge of legal matters relating to journalism

5. Shorthand (Look, it’s the best protection going when someone queries what you’ve written – especially if it gets to court).

The above five areas are all platform agnostic. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working as a self-employed hyperlocal blogger, in a regional newspaper newsroom or in broadcast journalism. Each area of the industry, and each platform, requires additional extra skills if an individual is to shine, but the five I’ve listed above are, I think, essential to all.

This week, I’d like to add a sixth:

6. The instinct of a photographer.

I came to that conclusion after watching this video, shot by Daniel Bentley, a journalism student at the University of Central Lancashire:

Ed Walker, a colleague at Trinity Mirror, flagged it up to me when I was working in Canary Wharf last week. Unsurprisingly, it has done rather well on Blog Preston, the hyperlocal site which Ed founded in Preston while a student there.

If you haven’t heard about the video – which according to the YouTube comment thread beneath the video has been a discussion point on the Chris Moyles Show on Radio 1 this week – then the basic background is this, as told by Daniel:

The man with the newspaper and the bald man both got on the train with me at Manchester Piccadilly.

Soon after setting off the bald man requested to the newspaper man that he wanted some elbow room so he could “work” on his laptop. This was met with a blank stare.

The bald man then got out his laptop and proceeded to watch some sort of comedy video (judging by his giggles every couple of minutes).

Shortly before arriving in Preston, the newspaper man barked at the bald man: “WILL YOU MOVE YOUR ELBOW PLEASE!”

I then caught on camera the ensuing argument.

 

The video, or rather than action of capturing the evidence on camera and then building a story around it, represents the difference between being a journalist/reporter when I first started out – in 1996 – and being a journalist now.

Back in 1996, witnessing something and then relaying it as an article might be enough – but the process of accumulating more information – would also be part of the process. In fact, accumulating the information would be needed to justify writing about something at all.

The widely-available ability to capture what you’re seeing as an image – still or moving – now means that it often simply isn’t good enough for a journalist/reporter to repeat what they’ve seen, along with third party comment. What’s more, that process of strengthening the witness statement with analysis and balanced opinion is often redundant.

It’s no longer enough to, in the words of Roy Walker, to just ‘say what you see.’ You have to show what you see – and to do that, you need the instinct of a photographer, knowing when to reach for the camera to record/capture what is going on around you.

Ok, so this case is about two men having a rather amusing argument on a train. But it got people talking – and isn’t that what journalism is supposed to do? But it can also be demonstrated on other stories too.

Paul Lewis, of the Guardian, demonstrated the instinct of a photographer when he uploaded some of the first pictures of the Tottenham Riots in August. Those pictures weren’t particularly good – indeed, some of the Twitterati suggested it was a waste of time – but they showed that something unusual was kicking off.

Four days later, in Manchester, Manchester Evening News reporter Pete Bainbridge showed a similar photographer’s instinct when he grabbed his video – subsequently sold on around the globe by the title’s syndication department:

For a modern-day journalist/reporter to fulfill the expectations of the audience, they now need a sixth skill: The instinct of a photographer.

That’s not a reporter taking on the photographer’s job, and it’s not someone particularly being a multimedia journalist – it’s the modern-day reporter responding to a change in expectation from an audience which has been influenced by multimedia.

Many journalists tell of a sixth sense which means they spot the line in a 200-page council report while skim-reading, or instinctively know which crime report to follow for a bigger story. The instinct of a photographer is that – only intensified. And we all need it.

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