If you are interested in trains like I am, then you probably spend a lot of time online discussing the latest rail related news stories with fellow railfans. Over the years I have discovered an extremely common thread of discussion – the “wrong photo” complaint.
If the initial poster isn’t the one who complains, it won’t be long until somebody else does.
So why does the news media make these supposed “mistakes”, and why are railfans guaranteed to complain about it?
On the news media
In the “good old days” of dead tree newspapers, the images that sat beside each article were just as important as the words, as former Age photographer Chris Beck wrote nostalgically:
When I started as a photographer at The Sunday Age in 1989, the picture editor impressed the importance of the images on me. Stories were discussed in tandem with pictures. Weeks later I photographed a coroner for the features section, and the picture took up half the page. The editors believed that it was the image that drew people to a story, and they wanted personality in the picture and a style that was coherent but surprising.
He also writes of the new reality, in a world where Fairfax Media have made 75% of their staff photographers redundant, and turned to far cheaper commercial photo agencies.
An agency will be sent a directive, probably an address and a name. The agency in turn will send a “faceless man” or woman to illustrate a story that has either already been written or yet to be composed. It’s economical.
The age of the camera phone has probably bluffed media management into believing that photojournalism is a luxury. Blurry amateur phone video and pictures of fights and fires on the news and internet are becoming more pervasive because they are immediate.
Photojournalists may be lamenting the replacement of their craft by outsiders, but in the case of most articles about public transport, newspapers don’t sent out photographers to capture a “relevant” photo from the Craigieburn line to go beside an article – instead they look at their existing stock photo collection.
Newspapers maintain their own collection of images previously taken by their staff photographers, and tag them with relevant keywords so they can be found again for use in future articles – or sell them to the public, like News Limited does with their Newsphotos website.
So in the case of the “wrong” photos found above, the newspaper photo editor just typed ‘Melbourne Metro train’ into their photo library, and chose a photo that fits the space available – nothing more, and nothing less.
In case you didn’t know, Melbourne’s fleet of XTrapolis and Siemens trains are dedicated to specific railway lines for arcane historical reasons, which means that when a newspaper publishes a photo of said trains alongside an article for a “different” railway line, the complaints from railfans come in thick and fast.
When I pointed out the reality of newspaper editors and stock photos to them, some misunderstood the commercial reality of print media.
I thought it was meant to be up to someone who works for the newspaper to take the photo.
At least some railfans at least *consider* that normal people might not know as much about trains as they do.
The editor might not even know that not all trains run the same lines.
But others think newspaper staff have all day to sit around organising train photos, so they are correctly tagged for future retrieval.
They should have searched “Upfield line”
Yes, but it’s not just that. A more sensible photo would have been a pic of the track between Gowrie and Upfield, a more relevant photo.
In the end, the simplest way to get the point across was for me to replace the word “train” with plane (and assume they weren’t a planespotter as well as a railfan!)
If I asked anyone here to pick a photo to illustrate an article about a plane crash, there is a good chance they’d get the airline wrong! Or the type of aircraft, or the type of engine, or which variant of the livery it wears…
As for the reality of indexing photos for future retrieval, I currently have over 31,948 photos of Victorian trains online, sorted into topic-based albums and captioned with relevant information against them – a process that has taken years of effort, and occasionally I still have difficulty trying to find a relevant photo to illustrate my railway related blog posts.
What hope does a mere newspaper editor have to find the perfect photo?
And in the future
If the selection of stock photos against news articles isn’t already enough to get a bee in the bonnet of railfan, this algorithm that spots breaking news stories and illustrates them with pictures is sure to do so:
Last year, Thomas Steiner at Google Germany, in Hamburg, released just such an algorithm that can spot breaking news events as they happen. Today, he’s updated it with a picture-based interface that attempts to tell the stories behind the news events that the algorithm has spotted.