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?

Me and the Wall Street Journal finally broke up

I have had a long-standing relationship with the Wall Street Journal. We’ve been through my business career together, traveled the country hand-in-hand and kept each other company in many lonely airport lounges when flights were delayed or during long layovers. I could always find a story I had not explored fully in her ample pages.

She was the third newspaper I ever read. The Saint Paul Pioneer Press was the first, the Dispatch was the second. They got merged in the mid ’80s and it got a bit awkward, as these things usually do. So, I picked up the Wall Street Journal just in case… well, you know.

And the Journal did some good reporting from a capitalist point of view. They didn’t wade too far afield into politics, knowing that both Democrats and Republicans were equally capitalistic. Both believed in making money regardless of their politics.

But when Rupert Murdock bought the Journal in 2007, I was skeptical but hopeful that the newspaper could maintain its reporting above the fray of politics and focus on stories as it pertained to business, reporting the political climate but not taking sides or laying blame.

My friends tried to warn me I would get my heart stomped on, but I remained loyal. Good business operates in any environment. Good businesspeople know this as David Rich points out in his blog post today. There are no “bad environments,” just bad business people who can’t see the upside.

Mr. Murdoch told the Bancrofts that ‘any interference — or even hint of interference — would break the trust that exists between the paper and its readers, something I am unwilling to countenance.’ … Mr. Murdoch and the Bancrofts agreed on standards modeled on the longstanding Dow Jones Code of Conduct.

In the ensuing years, I noticed slight changes in editorial word use as more and more “adjectives” entered the stories. As the health care debate ramped up, the Journal broke with AP style and started referring to the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare.” All sorts of red flags started rising.

But the stories were still compelling enough to continue reading as I categorically ignored the editorial pages and OpEd pieces by Karl Rove and his ilk.

Last Tuesday, the Journal ran a story on the state of college education in India. Several paragraphs into the story, they printed this:

India’s economic expansion was supposed to create opportunities for millions to rise out of poverty, get an education and land good jobs. But as India liberalized its economy starting in 1991 after decades of socialism, it failed to reform its heavily regulated education system. Business executives say schools are hampered by overbearing bureaucracy and a focus on rote learning rather than critical thinking and comprehension.

Subtle, until you recognized the general environment of the country. In Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and other states the Republican governors were waging a war on education, demonizing teachers as bureaucrats and the public school system as “heavily regulated.” Across the country, the Tea Party stirred up hate against President Obama by calling him a socialist. The Republicans joined the chant and FOX News amplified the drum beats.

Any good copyeditor would have struck those lines out in her sleep. I assume the editors at the Journal are not stupid nor careless, so the editorial comments in the story and the inference that the United States will be in the same state as India given our current “socialist” political climate were intentional, making the Journal reckless, incendiary and irresponsible. According to its point of view, to be a capitalist in the United States is to also be a social conservative, aligned with the ideological positions of the GOP and Tea Party.

That was too much to swallow.

It is one thing to take an editorial position on the Editorial pages, but it is quite another to weave your political views throughout the stories. It was skillfully done, but done nonetheless. I suppose the average reader would not have picked up the reference as readily as someone who has worked at a newspaper and has an APStylebook resting on the corner of his desk. As the discriminating readers leave quietly, one by one, the Journal will be left with those who either agree with their political position or who can’t discern the difference between capitalism and zealous conservatism. In the end I suppose public education will win out, but not because it is socialist, but that the conservatives will have driven out the best and brightest. But that is an argument for another day.

As I was talking with the Journal rep who was begging me to stay with every possible turn, I found myself getting angry with her. She was the one who had changed. She was the one who wanted to remake me. She was the one who failed to accept me for who I am and respect my differences while appreciating what we had in common.

I hung up the phone in a mingled state of loss and anger.

I’m sure I will move on, but it won’t be the same. Long-term relationships change a dog and the next newspaper will suffer the pangs of betrayal, my inability to get close and trust and my issues with intimacy. I will forever be asking “what does she want from me?” as I read each story printed in any newspaper.

The Wall Street Journal kicked this poor puppy right in the ribs. It kicked hard, harder than any newspaper should have kicked a dog. I may not recover from this one.

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