On Monday, the photography staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for its coverage of the death of Michael Brown and the events in Ferguson that followed. The 19 photos submitted for the Pulitzer depict mourners of Brown, protesters, vandalism and the police’s heavily militarized response.
In comparison to the news coverage of the events surrounding Ferguson, where individuals across the political spectrum criticized the Post-Dispatch of bias one either side, the photos depicted an agency, good and bad, of each cast of characters in a visceral and captivating way. One editor argued that the pictures presented allowed the Ferguson movement to frame the discussion of resistance, exemplified by the iconic photo of Edward Crawford throwing back a tear gas canister fired by a police officer.
After the prize was awarded, David Carson, a staff photographer of 15 years, stated, “We won a Pulitzer for something that began with the loss of somebody’s life. It has caused so much trauma in our community, but I’m proud of the way we responded as a staff to document those events and show people what was going on in their backyard.”
We, as an editorial board, are concerned that comments by a staff photographer like Carson may become increasingly rare, as many papers have had to reduce their staffs because of the changing landscape in journalism.
There are few examples of events so momentous and ongoing to require nearly constant coverage as the events of Ferguson have. These events have certainly necessitated a staff photographer, but some papers, including the Chicago Tribune, have cut their staff photographers, opting to contract freelance photographers instead.
According to University News Photo Editor Ryan Quinn, the quality of the photos the paper produces has clearly declined, but there has been a greater focus on contracting work out over more efficient staff members.
A copy editor for the Post-Dispatch, a staff member who edits for style, flow, spelling and grammar, told several editors of the UNews that staff writers have been increasingly encouraged to copy edit their own articles, which can often lead to mistakes. Additionally, writers are often asked to take photos of the events they are covering. While there are obvious benefits for a respective paper to reduce the size of its staff, several editors agreed that specialization of these positions is often useful for creating well-rounded articles.
What’s most concerning is that these changes are seemingly made to compete with the advent of civilian journalists, live streamers and amateur photographers, who can publish content almost immediately. There are certainly cases in which these folks can be useful. In the case of the Ferguson protests, live tweets from figures such as Deray Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie provided a perspective of the protests often missed by mainstream news reporters. Their tweets and large Twitter followings caused them to be named to Fortune magazine’s “50 greatest world leaders” list.
We believe in an approach in which anyone can post their opinions, reports or photographs, but it is also important that these individuals have something to which they can be compared. That is where professional journalism and photography come in.
It is when the professional journalists trade efficiency for specialization and trade speed for verified sources that newspapers begin to defy their own principles and begin to follow societal trends. As the Pulitzer Prize shows, sometimes it takes a combination of both in order to succeed. The movement surrounding Ferguson, the Post-Dispatch and journalism are all better because of these award-winning photos.