First Amendment – videos under fire

The camera phone is great for taking selfies and silliness or for turning any crime-conscious, concerned, or curious citizen into a news capturing machine and giving rise to a new term, “citizen journalist.”

On April 4, 2015 North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager stopped Walter Scott for a broken brake light. For unknown reasons the officer made Scott exit his vehicle and detained him. When Scott bolted and ran, Slager shot him multiple times in the back with his service revolver, reporting later that he shot Scott because the motorist struggled to take his Taser and he "feared for his life." The incident would have ended there and shortly forgotten if not for a youth who captured the murder on camera phone.

If such incidents on the news in recent years make you wonder why police misconduct is on the rise, I contend it is not. In fact, I believe our police officers are better trained and more citizen-conscious than ever before. However, there are some police who are going to make mistakes under pressure and a much, much fewer number who are outright bad cops. But the camera phone is now pulling the veil off bogus reports like “The suspect was resisting arrest,” “The suspect made an aggressive move toward me,” and “He tried to get my gun and I feared for my life.”

It is currently legal in all 50 states of the U.S. to video police activity and a Supreme Court ruling fortifies that videoing police activity is protected by the First Article of the Constitution, yet there are still incidents of police baring citizen from videoing and even police threatening photographers with arrest.

Restrictions are proposed that may limit the recording of police activity. A strict right to privacy bill was passed in 2014 in Illinois that no one could video or photograph anyone anywhere without prior consent of the individual, and for a time police there occasionally enjoyed enforcing a policy that no police activity, such as an arrest, could be videoed without prior consent of the person being arrested and the police officer. That bill was revised.

There are currently bills in their infancy in some states, including my own of Texas, requiring a sizable distance between the camera operator and the action. Supporters of the bill reason for the safety of the camera operator and that a photographer getting close to police can impede their duties. Such a bill has its merits but completely removes the ability of citizens to protect themselves with their own camera because, of course, you can not be a sizable distance from your camera and video yourself. So if you are stopped, detained or questioned you may not be able to use your camera if this bill is passed. Even if someone does video an incident from a distance, you may make an officer go berserk, like in this video.

Click here for an overview of current photographers rights presented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The American Civil Liberties Union has produced an app available in New York, California, Missouri, Oregon, Mississippi, and soon other states called Mobile Justice which will automatically upload a video to the ACLU database for reviewing, eliminating the possibility of loosing a video by having your phone confiscated or destroyed. Some commercial cloud programs offer immediate cloud uploading with a paid premium account.

<NEW>  Here is a lengthy news report about Texas video laws under debate and groups that call themselves "cop watchers."


Reporters Make Excelent Photojournalists part II

I am revisiting the subject that some photojournalists would believe in unicorns before they would believe a talented reporter/writer can also be a gifted news photographer. Yes, many photojournalists have a sweet gig where they don’t have to do any reporting, and this is cool. I am talking about photographers who can’t grasp the idea that many reporters are gifted photojournalists.

I once mentioned ex Chicago Sun-Times photographer Rob Hart, who as a casualty of industry cut-backs prophesied that asking reporters to photograph their own stories was going to be the end of professional journalism as we know it. You can read that post here.

Chad Rachman, a dedicated reporter and photojournalist at the New York Post, recently
NY Post Photojournalist Chad Rachman
From the reporter's Facebook page.
captured a startling panorama with his smart phone of the New York Fire Department in action on a huge fire near the city’s downtown.  (Please see Chad’s photograph here).

Chad's photo received many praises on his Facebook post, including “Amazing, Chad, really amazing! You really are so incredibly talented!” “Tragically beautiful. Captivating,” and many “Awesome!”

My favorite comment was from Thom Mitchell who stated, “Proof that it isn't the camera that makes the photographer but rather it's the vision of the photographer that matters.”


One person, much like I described in my first paragraph, Chris Gallant, used the comment section to grumble that although the photo was “Awesome,” it was shot with a smart phone and therefore one might get the misconception that reporters can do the same. What? Are reporters too stupid to be creative photographers? He ended his lengthy post with, “Nice, but taken out of context, could be used against photojournalists.”

They walk among us.

To Chad Rachman I say; you are awesome, creative, and an inspiration to photojournalists. You set the bar high this time, dude.

You can see more of Chad’s inspiring photography on his website here as well as some of his reporting here.


Being a feature writer

Last year an excellent reporter left our community newspaper and I lost an excellent Ninja Journalism guest blogger. See Jennifer Ritters' posts here, here and here.

Enthusiasm for the paper dropped and to use the words of one neighbor, “The paper is just not that interesting anymore.”  Jennifer was a good reporter and a gifted feature writer as well, and few features have appeared in that paper since, particularly of her quality.

Accidents, crime, city council reports and school district news are all important.  However, what readers dearly want to know is the community around them and the people who make it special.

Don’t believe me? Attend a city council meeting without a hot-button topic on the agenda and then attend a grass-roots benefit event. Notice the difference in attendance? Generally, people care about people and your news outlets should reflect that with quality feature stories.

I covered news with dedication but I LOVED writing features, and readers love them as well. I rarely received a single compliment on an important news pieces I busted my butt on (you know the feeling) but I received gushing emails after my feature on the shy, always-picked-last student who loved his school and team so much he graduated, went to trade school and returned to became the dedicated and popular equipment and grounds manager. I sometimes printed my best features and feature photos on the upper fold of my front pages and found these papers flew off the rack compared to having a front page picture of an angry city council member shaking their finger at somebody.

How to turn a hard news reporter into a feature writer

  1. Look for the positive. Take a fresh look at your community and instead of looking at what needs to be fixed, look at what is working.
  2. Know that everyone has a story. You just need to be a good enough reporter to find it.
  3. Read good features. I often teach “If you are going to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader.” If you want to be a sizzling romance author, you better be a hungry reader of such. The same is true of features.
  4. Learn not to be a news reporter. Writing features often requires patients, sensibility and sometimes compassion. Other posts on Ninja Journalism contain examples of how to talk with people, break the ice, make people comfortable and gain access to stories.

If you don’t have a good feature writer, get one. If you can’t afford one, build one.

Here is a tip: Assign your newest reporter to the task of producing two features a month as well as their regular assigned beat. The new pup will have fewer pre-conceived attitudes about the community and its people.

Here is another tip: What seems like trivial information to a story can be developed into a feature if given the effort. I had a basic sports story about an outstanding student athlete and I found she happened to have a graduated older sister and mother who were all track champions as well. I did not simply mention the family in the story, I interviewed them all, included photos of each in sports action and made that family prodigy of champions the focus of my story.

Here are a couple of my features already posted on Ninja Journalism:

I looked up the list of Pulitzer Prize winning features of the past two decades and found subjects including unsolved murders, extraordinary deaths, abuse, stalking, and other flamboyant subjects including bear attacks and avalanches. Yes, striking subjects make striking features and those subjects will occasionally be there for you. However, I encourage you to strive to find the “human” in human interest without the extraordinary subject.

Humans are interesting. Just ask one and find out.


Arsonist cannot stop small brave newspaper

I have another new hero.

I admire when reporters and newspapers stand up to political pressure or have no fear when it comes to printing controversy. My last such hero was John Daniel Garcia of the Big Bend Sentinel in south Texas and this week I salute the Rio Grande Sun newspaper in Espanola, New Mexico.

The Rio Grande Sun has a reputation of exposing political corruption, embarrassing lying politicians, and pointing out scandals in school districts and public offices. Doing such reporting is difficult for two reasons: One, because when researching controversy the parties involved not only do not return your phone calls but also try to turn sources against you. And two, reporting is made more difficult because the powers-that-be often try to use their supposed clout to pressure you into shutting the hell up.

When you continually do not shut the hell up, as the Sun has, you may get retribution. The lobby of the Rio Grande Sun office has pretty rocks on display – all of which have been thrown through their windows. The building has also been shot at and windows shot out during the night.

Earlier this week someone broke in and caught their office on fire.

Damage was limited and by the afternoon the team was pretty much back to operating as usual, printing a statement defying the arsonist and promising that such acts only make those that love the freedom of the press try even harder to exercise it.

So here’s to my new heroes, the people of the Rio Grande Sun. Tonight I salute you with a honey lager.


Photo editing debate continues

Too much or too little contrast got some photographers
in the 2015 World Press Photo contest disqualified.
I blogged a year ago about photo manipulation for journalism (here). Now, actions by judges of the 2015 World Press Photo Competition have forced the subject center stage.

To manipulate and to what degree to manipulate photos for journalism has been a subject of mine since I first got my hands on Photoshop 4.0 in 1996. One hundred percent of journalist I spoke with said no, no, none whatsoever when it came to the subject of manipulating a photo beyond slight contrast and clarity. However, it turns out about 20 percent of the world’s highest level photojournalist perform various degrees of photo manipulation, and in my opinion much of the other 80 percent do so and lie about it.

No, I’m not talking about Photoshoping  Obama with a stripper on his lap in a bar. I’m talking about artfully improving a photo without altering the information therein.

There are many sides to this saga, so read up and begin drawing your own conclusion.

Read this informative article comprised by The New York Times. The article contains various opinions from nine professionals.

I see points on both sides but continue to stand that some degree of improving a photograph without altering information is not a foul.  A wise quote to consider from the piece is the anonymous photographer stating “…if 20 percent of the highest level of photographers are doing it maybe we need to examine what they are doing and come to accept that as a growth of photography.”

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