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To Tell the Truth: Codes of Objectivity in Photojournalism

Communication, 13:95-109, 1992

Recent mass media scholarship has shed considerable light on journalistic objectivity as a social construct. Seminal studies by researchers like Tuchman (1978), Gans (1979), Epstein (1973), and Fishman (1980) have revealed the relationships among work routines, professional norms and values, and the institutional contexts in which newsmaking takes place. Examining news production as a social activity has helped to place objectivity within an appropriate cultural frame, allowing us to see it as a professional value and a set of communicative strategies employed by journalists. While the newsmaking routines associated with print and broadcast journalism have received significant scholarly attention, surprisingly little scrutiny has been directed towards news photography, or photojournalism.

Both history and popular lore have encouraged us to view photographs as direct, unmediated transcriptions of the real world, rather than seeing them as coded symbolic artifacts whose form and content transmit identifiable points of view. Statements of the kind made by Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, published in the London Quarterly Review for 1857, represent the enduring popular attitude towards the medium of photography:

    [Photography] is the sworn witness of everything presented to her view. What are her unerring records in the service of mechanics, engineering, geology, and natural history, but facts of the most sterling and stubborn kind?…Facts which are neither the province of art nor of description, but that of a new form of communication between man and man–neither letter, message, nor picture–which now happily fills up the space between them?

Since the introduction of photography, viewers have invested the medium with a level of authority and credibility unparalleled by other modes of communication. The iconic similarity of the photograph to its subject masks the distinction between image and reality, and obscures the significance of the picture-making process in the construction of a photographic message. Like Lady Eastlake, most contemporary viewers continue to think of the photograph as a transparent window on the world, capturing the reality in front of the camera lens.