How art belongs in journalism

Illustrated by Mia Andrea

In many ways, art and journalism go hand in hand. The symbiotic relationship between the photos, graphics or cartoons and a written story allows the two to complement each other and make room for simplified information and context.

Today, about 55 percent of readers spend 15 seconds or less reading articles on news reporting sites, according to a study by Chartbeat, a web analytics company. This statistic can be discouraging to us as journalists. How can anyone get the information they need in 15 seconds or less? This trend in audience consumption means that journalists have had to adapt to a short attention span. Our website’s numbers are a bit better with an average of one minute spent per article, but we still suffer from an audience that largely doesn’t read articles top to bottom.

When looking at an article in print or online, after the headline, the first thing that a reader is going to see is the visual component of a story. That means our art has to be meaningful. It could be a graphic with thoughtful statistics or a well-captioned photo. It might be a political cartoon that causes readers to be intrigued by the point we want to make in an editorial. The art we use must be visually appealing to grab a reader’s attention, even if it’s just for a moment.

We’ve seen journalism use art to make a real impact. Thirty-two years ago, Steve McCurry took the photo of the famous “Afghan Girl” for National Geographic. It’s arguably the most famous photograph ever used in a publication. Sharbat Gula, the subject of the photo, was an Afghan refugee when the photograph was taken in 1985, and the story is remembered and recognized by people all around the world.

We’ve seen similar powerful photographs today, including the “Boy in the Ambulance” photo of an injured Syrian refugee child. Publications often have to make critical ethical decisions about graphic photos that show the reality of tragedy. Quality photojournalism brings life to a story that the journalist wants to tell. Photographers often bear witness in documenting history. It’s human nature to not want to be subjected to looking at something uncomfortable, but sometimes, it’s necessary. That said, there has to be an ethical balance between exposing the truth and preserving human dignity. An example of this is “The Falling Man,” a controversial photo released showing a suicide during 9/11. Journalists debated about the ethical concerns of publishing the photo.

Art often gives room for stories to breathe and communicates what the writer can’t in so many words. Our job as the media is to be as unbiased as possible when reporting the news. When photos, video or other mediums complement the reporting done by a journalist, the art allows for readers to draw their own conclusions about the story. Emotions are brought to life by art, just like the quotes we use bring the subject’s voice to the story we’ve chosen to tell.

Art is a valuable aspect of any decent publication. Without it, journalists would miss the mark more often with readers as they bring analysis to a story. Art allows for readers to feel connected to the stories the media wants to portray.

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