Visual Reporting The Role of Photojournalism In Mass Communications Education Panel discussion for the Visual Communication Division of the AEJMC at its annual convention in Washington, DC, August, 1995 Published in News Photographer magazine, August, 1995 Paul Martin Lester, Ph.D. Associate Professor Department of Communications, H-230 CSUF Fullerton, California 92634 657.449.5302 FAX: 657.773.2209 at


Julie Newton [head of photojournalism at the University of Texas] during Thursday's presentation made me think about the significance of the phrase she used to describe reporters with a camera.They're now called visual reporters. When I was a shooter (an awful term if ever there was) for the Times-Picayune in the 1970s and someone asked me what I did for a living, I would answer that I am a photographer for the newspaper. Ten years later we all started calling ourselves photojournalists. I resisted at first because it was a mouthful and it sounded haughty (and you still see the word hyphenated-an indication of the profession's schizophrenic nature. Another example is the name of the major organization for photojournalists-we are called news photographers). But big changes are afoot and Julie is ahead of us in using the term, visual reporter.

But I see a lot of confusion in the photojournalism field as we shift from photojournalists to visual reporters.

Darkrooms will be eliminated. Darkrooms with their mysterious lighting, fixer smells, rushing water, and magical acts, will be eliminated. Consequently, that special place where we all initially fell in love with this marvelous medium will be manipulated-the lights will be turned on, the walls will be cleaned of odors, the plumbing will be removed, and the enlargers will be replaced with networked computer workstations where visual reporters will complete magical acts.

The reason I know this will happen is simple-only a photo student can use an enlarger-but anyone, everyone can use a computer. And not only is that concept positive and necessary to accept, it is inevitable because of economic, professional, technological, and sociological forces at work even as we speak.

Most newspapers made this switch five years ago. An immediate result, and discussed regularly on the NPPA listserve, is the relationship between the visual reporter, editor, and writer. There are indications that this shift in technology, because it increases the visibility of visual reporters in the newsroom, will lead to photographers giving assignments to writers. (Imagine a world where a visual reporter works on a story for a month and the writer has three hours to complete the piece).

And yet that shift leads to conflict because visual reporters-as professionals and students-are stereotyped by writers, editors, students and faculty members as reporters with their brains knocked out. The reason for the stereotype is because traditional photojournalism courses, textbooks, and magazine and newspaper photo departments stress camera operations, assignment completion, and printing issues-and not visual literacy, research and writing, political assertiveness, cultural and critical meaning, ethical and moral responsibilities, and sociological and psychological factors. When darkrooms are eliminated, photojournalists lose their hiding places and join the newsroom or the student computer lab. The technical first approach to photojournalism practice and education is exposed to the light and becomes subject to the criticism of hypocritical reporters and faculty members.

It is important to consider that university photo departments, programs, or sequences are not being eliminated solely because of budget cut-backs. Photo sequences are eliminated when photojournalism faculty members do not make the shift in their classes to visual reporting and the number of students in the program declines to an unacceptable figure. It then becomes easy to select photojournalism as a target because chairs and deans don't ever get the message that photojournalism is more than using an eye and a finger.

A clue to a solution is in the phrase, visual reporter and how it expands the definition and job description of a student, staffer, and faculty member. It will be standing room only in photojournalism classes when we teach our students the fundamentals of visual communication-how to sense, select, and perceive a visual message-and how to work a camera, a computer, and the software, how to use database research methods, how to create informational graphics, how to combine words with your stories, and how to make layouts and designs for print and interactive multimedia. That's when students who never thought of themselves as visual reporters will sign up for your classes because they know that we will best teach them how to be prepared for what lies ahead.

Quite frankly, I truly believe that the future is so bright for all of us, that [speaker takes his sunglasses out of his shirt pocket and puts them on] I've got to wear shades.