In an earlier blog post on the Bradford’s National Museum Project website, we looked at how some Bradfordians are frustrated by the images used by the national press to portray their city. Now, I’d like to put the spotlight on how these images are chosen, and explore how changes to media content production may be doing a disservice to places like Bradford.
On Twitter, some people have criticised ‘The Guardian’ in particular for its use of illustrative images that often feed into a narrative of Bradford being a segregated, poor town. Other media outlets, from the ‘Daily Mail’ to ‘Huffpost’, often use generic stock images when illustrating a story about Bradford, rather than commissioned images from the city itself.
In order to understand why this is often the case, we have to look at the wider media landscape and an industry which has itself gone through seismic changes in its approaches to content production in recent years. News outlets that could once work to daily deadlines and afford to commission bespoke freelance photography now find themselves working on an instant production cycle with little or no budget for things like illustrations or photographs. “The two most important questions a picture editor asks these days are, ‘Is it high res and is it free?’,” jokes Adam, a former picture editor for a national magazine who now does freelance shifts for the digital platforms of a national daily newspaper. Adam (not his real name, as he didn’t want to be identified) went on to describe some of the changes that have taken place in traditional newsrooms around the world.
“The honest answer is, I think, proper pictures are seen as a bit of a luxury when they’re so easy to source for free. Camera phones are phenomenally good, and the dailys are obsessed with video content wherever we can get it. A lot of journalists now have to source their own images rather than relying on picture researchers or editors. Where there is a bit of research required, we rely on our internal collections or stock image sites that we have a repeated use subscription to. Images are tagged and captioned depending on the content so, yeah, I’ll be honest, it’s likely that if you have a story about something kicking off in Bradford, or wherever, you just search for tags with things like ‘Bradford’ ‘poverty’ and see what comes up. It doesn’t help that we’re sat doing this from a desk in London. I’m from Leeds originally and remember there was a recent story we covered about the London tube bombers (who had travelled from Leeds on 7 July 2005 to carry out a terrorist attack) – in the picture folder there were images of a really run-down shopping centre that I think was demolished about 5 years ago!”
So what of the infamous Suffa Tul Mosque image that keeps popping up alongside the Guardian’s stories about Bradford? Helen Pidd is the Guardian’s North of England editor, and thinks the image itself has artistic merits, although admits to seeing why people in Bradford might not necessarily like it. Helen told me that the image (owned by Getty) was taken in 2015, in the run-up to the UK General Election, and is the first result on the Guardian’s image database when you search for the tags ‘bradford’ and ‘mosque’ together. In the age of fast news, this may go some way to explain why such a readily available and easy-to-access picture is often the one that’s published first.
The changes to content production are not just affecting national media outlets — they’re also having a significant impact on the way local and regional newsrooms produce content. In 2013, the Bradford Telegraph and Argus lost all 11 of its sub-editors (the people responsible for making sure stories are factually and grammatically correct before publication) when its parent company Newsquest opened a centralised production site over 200 miles away in Wales. Likewise, almost all local newspapers have seen a drastic reduction in the number of ‘staff’ photographers, picture editors and researches, making them increasingly reliant on stock imagery and free, ‘user-generated’ content.
Ultimately, with a free press, it’s not the job of councils, local bodies, or even citizens to dictate what images the media chooses to use when it comes to illustrating Bradford, but the recent changes to the industry do highlight the restrictions such media outlets face when sourcing their photography. Establishing a Bradford Media Commons of free-to-use and up-to-date images may just be one way of ensuring that a fairer picture is being painted