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Journalists want to know: Can we use your disaster photo, please?

(iStock)

When Beth Booker posted a photo of her mother’s house flooded by Hurricane Ian last week, messages of concern and sympathy came pouring in. What also came in droves were requests by media outlets to use her photos in coverage of the story.

“I’ve gotten a lot of [direct messages] and replies here asking to interview my mother and to use my photos on the news,” Booker wrote on Twitter. “Her. House. Is. Under. Water. We are literally in an eyewall of a hurricane. No, not available for an interview.”

Journalists pleading with regular people to republish their images of a natural disaster has become an almost daily ritual on social media, where local, national and global outlets search constantly for newsworthy images taken by regular people. Some news agencies, such as Reuters, even have dedicated Twitter accounts for the pursuit.

These journalists aren’t exclusively chasing life-or-death photos. In August, for example, a News 12 Long Island reporter was quick to swoop into Twitter and ask for permission to use someone’s photo of a “crazy” line of people outside a soon-to-close pizzeria in Holbrook, N.Y. But the practice is particularly common after a natural disaster or extreme-weather event that affects a large swath of territory.

“Photographers and videographers can only be in one place at a time and often aren’t present when the worst destruction hits, so that’s why TV news outlets may turn to social media for visuals,” said Mark Feldstein, professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

It’s also relatively easy hunting. The sheer number of viral images depicting Ian’s destruction in Florida and South Carolina means that networks can simply move on to the next person if they get a no — or no response at all — to their request.

While journalists pleading to use someone else’s work is hardly a new phenomenon, the public nature of social media has laid bare the sausage-making process for everyone to comment on.

Some are upset to see multimillion-dollar media corporations essentially begging for free material — usually offering the amateur photographer no compensation besides a caption credit. And then there’s the language in the requests: often a stunted mix of well-wishes and imposing legalese.

“OMG! I hope you all are okay!” an ABC Action News staffer wrote to Booker after seeing her mother’s submerged house in Fort Myers Beach. “I was wondering if you own the rights to this photo/video. If so, ABC Action News would like permission for us and our Scripps affiliates to use your photo/video on all our platforms (broadcast and digital). We’d, of course, give you credit!”

Barbara S. Cochran, a veteran of NBC News and CBS News who is now professor emeritus at the University of Missouri’s journalism school, likened the social media requests to the age-old practice of journalists knocking on someone’s door and asking for a photo of a loved one who was killed.

In either case, she said, it’s incumbent on the journalist making the request to respect the wishes of the person who has the photo and to be willing to take “no” for an answer.

“There is a point in an emergency, whatever it is, where the emergency is still going on, and you’re treading on very thin ice if you are reaching out to them as a journalist,” said media ethicist Kelly McBride.

McBride said journalists have generally gotten much better in recent years at showing empathy and compassion when asking for permission to republish photos. And she pushed back at critics who say the media is profiting off the pain of regular people. “I think your duty as a journalist is to figure out the best way to tell the most accurate story, and clearly scouring social media for documentation of something as massive as a hurricane is an important strategy,” she said. “If you didn’t do it, your story would likely be less accurate.”

Aside from questions of tact, there’s the matter of money. When an official Fox News account asked a Twitter user for permission to use his photo of a collapsed construction crane in Dallas in 2019, it only took a few minutes to get a reply: “Sure, how much?”

The answer from most media organizations is generally: nothing. Some critics accuse the companies of leaning on user-generated photos as a way of cutting professional photographers out of the process and cutting costs, further straining an already weakened profession.

And some professional photographers have gone so far as to intercede on social media, urging amateurs to request compensation before handing over rights to their images.

“News outlets make a profit from these interviews and get lots of clicks and higher ratings from dramatic cellphone videos, but often don’t want to pay people for it,” Feldstein said. “There’s something a bit ghoulishly exploitive about news outlets profiting from others’ misery without compensating them for their help when they need it most.”

Many amateur photographers ultimately allow journalists to use their photos free of charge. Seeing a photo you have taken on television can be exciting, and for those chronicling natural disasters or causes that need more attention, the publicity can be a good trade-off for the lack of compensation.

“I think it’s possible that people who are posting video want people to witness what they see,” Cochran said. “They’re sharing their experience. I think there’s every justification for [journalists] asking them, and often the people on the receiving end are not going to be disturbed by it.”

Dan Shelley, president of the Radio Television Digital News Association, noted another potential complication: It’s important for journalists to inquire whether the person who posted the image actually took it. If a network airs an image without the permission of the original photographer, it could face a copyright infringement claim from the rightful owner. “Even though it is inadvertent and they have acted in good faith, news organizations are still often hit with infringement claims,” he said.

After initially expressing her concerns about the media requests to interview her mother and use the images, Booker decided a day later to grant blanket permission.

“Okay, news outlets,” she wrote. “You have my full permission to use these photos and share our story. I will do anything to bring attention to her and to reunite with her as soon as possible. Share this far and wide to keep the faith.”

Booker’s story ended on a happy note: Her mother was located.

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