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Gatekeepers in the Press: Photo Coverage of Katrina

- April 3, 2008


Most American newspapers — all but a select few — rely on syndicates and wire services for their coverage of national and international affairs. A paper may have its own distinctive editorial slant, but its shared reliance, with hundreds of other papers, on a common set of sources of national and international news undoubtedly introduces greater homogeneity into news coverage than would exist if most papers sent their own reporters out to cover the news. (To be sure, even then considerable homogeneity would remain, given the tendencies toward news management by those in positions of authority and toward “pack journalism” among news reporters.)

This is not to say, however, that newspapers are merely passive recipients of what they tear off the AP or Reuters news ticker. They print only a small fraction of the enormous volume of materials that they receive every day, and what they deem fit to print may be a highly unrepresentative slice of those materials.

Analyses of media content typically focus on the spoken or written word, but a recent study (“What Katrina Revealed: A Visual Analysis of the Hurricane Coverage by News Wires and U.S. Newspapers,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, August 2007) has turned the spotlight on the visual component of media coverage. The starting point for that study was the criteria that journalists use to define “newsworthiness”: prominence/importance, human interest, conflict/controversy, unusualness, timeliness, and proximity. The authors of the study, Shahira Falmy, James D. Kelley, and Yung Soo Kim, hypothesized that these criteria would be borne out in press coverage of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina caused to the Gulf Coast in 2005. To test their hypothesis, they sampled photographs from the AP and Reuters archives and matched them against the photos that actually appeared on the front pages of 400 American newspapers.

These comparisons revealed that the photos that actually appeared in these papers were unrepresentative of the photos that they received from the wire services. Among other things, the pictures that made it into these papers conveyed greater emotionality, portrayed more victims of the storm and fewer public officials, and (presumably in line with the norms of “up close and personal coverage”) showed fewer aerial depictions of the storm’s devastation.

Who, then, were the real gatekeepers? That is, who decided which images the reading public would receive of the aftermath of Katrina? The first cut was made by the wire services, in the form of their decisions about which photos to make available to their client newspapers. That first cut was obviously crucial, for newspapers can’t publish pictures that they never receive in the first place. But neither can they publish more than a few of the pictures that they do receive, and it was at this stage that a second round of gatekeeping decisions got made in the case of Katrina coverage. As the authors conclude:

bq. Photojournalism has its own entrenched traditions, practices, and values. These represent the filters through which the day’s photos are routinely screened for presentation in our daily newspapers. The visual reporting in newspapers is much more than a playlist provided by the wire services passed on to readers. Instead, photo editors reference news values particular to their discipline and audience as they produce the dialy visual report of a news event.

Not all the biases of news coverage are “partisan” or “political.” Many of them stem directly from long-established, deeply-entrenched journalistic professional values, norms, and standards. Falmy, Kelley, and Kim’s study provides new confirmation of the operation of these factors and their potential for shaping public reactions to the news of the day.