The importance of writing for photojournalists
In today’s society, everyone owns a camera. We have the ability to take pictures on our phones, laptops, and camera bodies of all shapes and sizes. We also have the convenience to upload these images and stories onto the web within seconds. This empowers everyone to become a journalist. Although some people are not paid journalists, it’s posing a threat to the professionals -- specifically photojournalists. Due to the growth in mobile devices, photojournalists are more commonly being referred to as visual journalists. Visual journalists must have knowledge in photography, video, audio and writing. Some people may discount the importance of writing in this field because of the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” However, photos cannot do the job alone, they’re used to advance stories. Photojournalists are still journalists and have a duty to give the public as much information as possible, and this requires critical writing skills.
As an undergraduate studying Photojournalism, I consider my writing skills just as essential as my photography skills. Newsrooms are shrinking, the more versatile the people, the more likely you are to stay on the team. In my Intro to Photojournalism class freshman year, I was assigned to write an essay about a working professional in my field. On top of writing the paper for the assignment, I had to come up with 20 questions for my interviewee and some follow up questions as well. That was the first paper I wrote during my college career. Since then, I’ve written dozens of photo captions, essays, news stories, scripts, and short answers for assignments. Even though I’m still early on in my college career, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to travel to Austin, Tx for the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) - Associated Press Media Editors (APME) – Associated Press Photo Managers (APPM) News Leaders conference, all expenses paid.
The application was emailed to me by a professor in the journalism department. Intrigued, I applied, even though the application stated, “Juniors and seniors preferred.” I was a freshman with a portfolio that had only just begun, and I knew I needed to make myself stand out. I picked my best photos and organized them into groups. With each group I wrote a brief overview of what It consisted of. I also created a multimedia tab which incorporated photos, video and writing from a news event I covered and reported on as if it was an assignment for the newsroom. That’s why I believe I was one of six applicants selected from a pool of 70 total. Showcasing my capabilities may have been the decision maker in the acceptance process.
On this trip I worked alongside editors from all over the nation including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press and many more. I even had the opportunity of meeting and talking with the publisher of The New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger. I was able to network while I was there and passed out my business cards to editors as well. I also met with Anne Brennon, Editor in chief of the MetroWest Daily News and The Milford Daily News. She gave me pointers and now I have another connection in my field. Myself and the five other students were there to report on the event, therefore I created the website for our coverage to be posted on and the Twitter account we collectively used to live tweet during sessions. I also wrote a story that needed to be covered when our writers weren’t available, I was willing to be versatile to get the job done. Being granted this opportunity has opened many doors for me. I was able to show my work ethic to all the editors that attended the conference and to the adviser that traveled with us.
Ryan Sparrow, a professor of photojournalism at Ball State University, who also freelances as a photographer, uses writing every day. He creates descriptive PowerPoint slides to help inform the undergraduate students he teaches in the course. He said most of his writing is informal, like when he uses Slack and when sending emails to students and colleges. Although, he uses informal writing a lot, Sparrow uses formal writing when composing persuasive letters to the administration and organizations to provide funding for projects he’d like to execute. For example, Sparrow and a group of Ball State University students were able to travel to PyeongChang to cover the winter Olympics in 2018. Writing persuasive letters allows Sparrow to take trips like these. With these sorts of opportunities, students can work alongside professional journalists. This has opened doors for students in the past, and it couldn’t have happened without the persuasive words from Sparrow.
I reached out to Robert Sheer, a visual journalist at The Indy Star in Indianapolis, IN. He said he uses writing more often than one might think. He informed me that most of his writing is informal because he uses Twitter to promote his photos, galleries and stories. “In this age, journalists don’t just report the news, we’re encouraged to engage with and become parts of our community.” He also described that the more formal part of his writing includes photo captions, correctly spelling names of people in the images and short narratives that are dropped into the videos that he creates to explain more complicated concepts. Sheer said, “I’d like to think that having a good grasp of grammar basics helped push me ahead of other candidates when I’ve applied for jobs.” He believes the weekly articles he wrote about wine for The Indy Star are what saved his spot in the newsroom during an era of steady layoffs. Sheer is a part of the selection process for new hires and Summer interns at The Indy Star. He said, “Nothing weeds people out more quickly than basic problems like not understanding apostrophe use, or misusing words like their, they’re and there.” Sheer said he uses Lexis Nexis, a database during the development of his writing to see what other publications have wrote about, regarding the topic he’s trying to report on and often refers to the National Photographers Press Association (NPPA) and the News Photographers Association (NPA) for discussions and opportunities to advance through contests. Even as a working professional, Sheer is always looking ways to become a better journalist.
After conducting my research into photojournalism related organizations, and talking to working professionals in my field, I’ve concluded that although I will be considered a visual journalist, my job will still entail lots of important writing. When I look into the future, I can see myself engaging with the community through professional social media pages, updating my personal photography blog and writing stories and captions for photos. I challenge myself to write, even when I don’t necessarily have to. As I pursue my career in journalism, I hope I become exposed to more complex writing skills that I will someday be able to master. Writing will never die, so instead of dreading the task, I encourage fellow undergrads to take it as an opportunity to use your voice to express your thoughts on paper and watch as readers lose themselves in your writing just as they would in your pictures. As a picture may be worth a thousand words, a thousand good words may be the difference between being hired on or weeded out during the hiring process. Don’t be afraid to become versatile.