Some of the imagery used by the media as part of their coverage of Ferguson was itself the subject of debate. On August 14, just days after Michael Brown’s death, the New York Times published the article “Ferguson Images Evoke Civil Rights Era and Changing Visual Perceptions.” It included an example that shines a spotlight on a key challenge associated with selecting images as part of news coverage of fast-changing stories:
The Philadelphia Daily News was a case in point in the speed with which 21st-century image parsing can occur. In the wee hours of Thursday morning—in response to readers’ comments on Twitter about a photo the newspaper had planned to run on its front page, showing an African-American protester in Ferguson about to hurl what looked like a firebomb—editors changed their minds and instead used a photograph of an African-American woman standing in front of police officers, holding a sign urging answers in the death of the teenager, Michael Brown.
An assistant city editor wrote on Twitter to those objecting to the first picture that they would be able to understand the whole story, in a “sympathetic treatment,” if they opened the paper. But a reader responded, “Yes, in ten-point font I can see the fine print, which is completely overwhelmed by the picture.”
Images capture moments; they are seldom comprehensive or entirely representative. They are also seen through the biases of the viewer. In the example from the Philadelphia Daily News mentioned above, the protester was not about to hurl a firebomb but in fact was throwing a tear-gas canister back at police. However, many people would not realize this without reading the caption.
While text can provide broader and deeper context, as this article excerpt indicates, many more people see the pictures associated with news reports than ever read the corresponding article or even the caption that accompanies and explains the image. In most instances, images have more power than the accompanying text, rendering the decisions that news organizations must make about images—especially the choosing of one or at most two lead images—particularly difficult.