A photo speaks a thousands words and one editorial point of view

On the evening of September 11, 2001, my family piled into the car and we drove to a restaurant to have dinner. During the five mile drive on a mostly deserted freeway, we talked about the events of the day and how the kids felt about them. My daughter — who was 10 at the time — was the most affected. As we passed by a gas station, she noticed a line of cars forming and blurted out, “Daddy, my friend said we should get gas NOW because it will be $10/gal by night. It’s already $5/gal in Indiana!”

I smiled because I could. I was driving and she couldn’t see my face from the back seat.

I asked her why she thought that was true? I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it amounted to ‘prices moving west to east’ just like the weather. We talked through this a bit more and then she realized that the logic her friend had was not entirely accurate. Prices don’t work like weather patterns.

Last week, The New York Times started a “What’s going on in this picture?” as part of their Newspaper in Education program, the Learning Network. It has been several years since I created newspaper lesson plans so I found myself a bit rusty as to why this bothered me so much. Then I remembered my recent exchanges with @NeilHedley on editorial point of view on some photos during this election cycle and found my bearings.

I don’t mean to disparage The New York Times and their Newspaper in Education program. They are following a model that has been set for a long time by educators. But I think we can do better by our kids.

During my time at Newspapers in Education at the Dayton Daily News, we did not play “guess what this is” games. We crafted the KidsINK pages like they were real editorial. That meant photos captions that explained what was going on in the photo.

But that does not mean the photo was not carefully edited. Photos on the KidsINK pages were as carefully chosen and cropped as were the words to describe them as were the words written to tell the story. The editorial point of view of photos mattered then 10-14 years ago and matters even more today.

Stick with me.

Part of what is challenging about teaching literature or history — and this case, news — is relying on the student to “discover” the plot that is somehow buried in a sea of words or behind a series of pixels on a photo. For most of them, withholdig the plot or what is happening in a photo seems like “gotcha” learning. Kids today are not in short supply with people telling them what they are looking at.

Finding out the facts or the plot is easier than ever with tools like Wikipedia and Google. The primary skill most students need now is not the ability to discover what is happening, but whether or not what they are being told and shown is factual and true.

Tell kids what is going on in the photos; don’t make them guess. Now, ask them, “Do you believe it is true? How about factual? What about the photo makes you think that? What about the photo makes you doubt that? Why do you think it is important that someone thought you should know that?” and then perhaps most importantly, “What do you believe the photojournalist is trying to convince you to believe?”

Skills our kids need to navigate their futures.
Bon Stewert wrote this excellent piece about sending kids out into the wild unprepared. Please read it (but after you finish this post.. I promise, we are almost done.)

Let’s fast-forward to The New York Times’ election day issue (the New York edition, which is different from the National Edition) photo above. A click on the photo will lead us to the full page*. What does this photo tell you?

At first glance, it is the First Family walking on stage before Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech. But why that particular photo? What else is going on? What about the family, the election and the country did the editors want the readers to know? What is being said in that photo? What is the editorial point of view?

Here is my take. I think the position of the two girls — Sasha and Malia — is screaming volumes about what was accomplished on election night. Look at where they are relative to the president and first lady. They are in front of them, almost leading them on stage. I think the editors are telling us that while Barack Obama may have won a second term, it was really the generation coming after them that won the night. The next generation solidly includes members who are strong, non-white and female and not ever, ever, ever going to be breaking up with America.

In case you think I may be reading too much into the photo, take a look at the library of photos available to the front page editor. The photo featured above was chosen — consciously or subconsciously — for a reason. The photo is a self-contained story that the editor wanted to tell. There is no such thing as “just a pretty photo, embellishing an article” in a newspaper.

Kids need to know what is going on — and they need to go through the discovery process themselves — but they also need truth assessment in far faster and larger quantities than their parents ever did. In many cases, they don’t have the luxury of fact-checking against an encyclopedia or library. Media lies to them in a constant stream in real time; on television, on radio, on the Internet and in conversations with their friends and peers.

*Dear NYT lawyers: Please consider this Fair Use for educational purposes. Please?

7 Replies to “A photo speaks a thousands words and one editorial point of view”

  1. When I first heard about schools teaching FB and Twitter, I was appalled. But then I got thinking about it & realized that is where kids live now, and a bit of education about social media could only be a smart thing. The link to the article is very interesting.

    As for the featured photo, I’d guess that the NYT used it because it shows the family walking in the same direction, more or less as one cohesive unit. The message I get from it is that the present and the future are going the same way.

  2. Fascinating – never thought of it that way. But now that you mention it, it’s hard to miss. Because you’re right, each of the daughters (in terms of the position of their feet on the stage) is ahead of the parent she’s walking with.

    Sometime I’ll have to get around to the NYT trying, where possible, to use photos of Romney waving to crowds with what subliminally looks like a familiar salute from a certain evil World War II figure.

  3. yes. one of the things i didn’t talk much about in the post you linked were the broader media literacies that i think need to be part of scaffolding social media literacies: in a very crude sense, the social media side might be said to be about how to put stuff out and connect with people, while the media side might be about how to take stuff in and weigh/sort/judge/make sense of it.

    years ago, when i first started teaching in B.Ed programs, i taught a course called Media & Technology Literacies. now i just teach Technologies in Education. in a sense, i think that’s backwards movement, reinforcing the idea that technologies are just instruments or tools for teachers and kids. you point out a bit of why, here. thanks for the reminder.

  4. SoMe are channels that are not going away anytime soon. We teach kids how to cross the street safely, how to navigate their world… SoMe are part of their world…

    I like that added dimension, present and future going the same way. If we take the time to analyze and put words to what we are seeing in the photo, we begin to understand how deep an image really is and how it affects us. There is a reason they same a photo speaks 1,000 words…

  5. There are no “accidents” in newspaper. My mantra is “someone needs to pay to print the thing.” Everything on the page — even photos, especially photos — better do the job or it shouldn’t be there.

    I look forward to reading that “salute” post! 🙂

  6. One of the natural extensions of newspaper, especially in Newspaper in Education, is establishing and running a charter school. I’m really rather surprised (well, not really) that the New York Times has not done that yet. Maybe a NYT-MSNBC venture… Can you imagine how that could change a generation? (Scarier would be a WSJ-FOX venture, but….)

    Read this piece I wrote about the 140conf in June http://www.dogwalkblog.com/the-analog-still-rules-my-takeaway-from-140conf-nyc-2012.html about my view of the role of technology in education. The bit by Kevin Honeycutt in the video is worth watching and the “conclusion” drawn by the guy right after him in my view, just didn’t get it… tech is a tool, not the lesson. Same with newspaper (which is tech.. yes it is!) which can be used or misused just as easily.

  7. Wow, you are scaring the hell out of me. why? With the deterioration of journalism there is just a ton of digital content that is agenda-based. And yes, just because it’s called journalism doesn’t mean it is without an agenda as you point out. The more I see how the digital world is progressing, the more I admire George Carlin. Night Rufus

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