Limiting access for news photographers a 'worrisome' trend

The Tragically Hip concert promoters barred news photographers from covering the event, instead providing their own images. It's part of a troubling trend, some say, particularly with political leaders trying to control their image.

Tragically Hip concert promoter barred news photographers from the event

This photo, of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hugging Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie just before the Kingston show at the K-Rock Centre, was taken by Trudeau's official photographer. News photographers were not allowed inside the venue. (Adam Scotti/PMO)

Canadians likely pay little attention to the credits on photos of news stories, as most people are naturally more interested in the image itself than those who provided it.

But had they looked closely at some of the stills of the Tragically Hip concert in Kingston this weekend that circulated in news media,  they would have noticed that those photos were not taken by a recognized news organization.

Instead, they were provided by the concert promoter Live Nation. And that's because Live Nation, citing lack of space in the small Kingston, Ont., venue, said it couldn't accommodate news photographers and barred them from covering the event.

Limitations on journalists

That, suggested The Canadian Press editor-in-chief Stephen Meurice, is part of a troubling trend, where "increasingly, limitations are being placed on journalists' access to various kinds of events." 

While some news agencies (including CBC News) made use of these Hip concert photos, The Canadian Press and Reuters declined to distribute them. CP argued it's the news agency's policy not to use handouts if CP journalists are barred from shooting an event. 

"Using handout pictures produced and controlled by a person or organization we cover removes our ability to exercise that editorial independence," Meurice wrote in a piece for "The images become, essentially, promotional material, and we do not distribute such material as part of our news file."

"What would have happened had some unexpected incident taken place — something involving the prime minister, for example? Would the tour photographer have captured it, and would those pictures be made available?"

This picture was taken and supplied by Live Nation, the Tragically Hip concert promoter (Mike Homer/Live Nation)

Lack of media access to the Hip show itself may not necessarily be the "poster child" for those concerned about this particular issue, said Paul Knox, associate professor emeritus at the Ryerson School of Journalism. There were, after all, more than 6,000 people attending the concert, most equipped with cellphone cameras, and millions across the country who watched the broadcast.

He agreed though that the more disturbing aspect was the lack of access to the prime minister for news photographers. One of the pictures that circulated through social media was a photo of Justin Trudeau hugging Hip lead singer Gord Downie just before the show.

But that image was taken by Trudeau's personal photographer Adam Scotti, whose pictures of the prime minister in moments not accessible to the media have increasingly popped on social media and made their way into news stories.

Picture supplied by the PMO of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Calgary earlier this year sitting down with corporate leaders in the oil and gas sector. (Adam Scotti/PMO-CPM)

That is concerning, said Knox, since the PMO in this case is not working on behalf of the audience, but on behalf of its client, namely the prime minister. 

'Not getting a diversity of views'

"It matters because we're not getting a diversity of views and it matters because the selection process is going on, not in a newsroom, but in a government office somewhere as to what images get published," Knox said.

"The selection process is a function of public relations and marketing. It's not a function of news and journalism."

If you can control the visual tone of an event, I think you have a lot of power.- Tim Currie, King's College School of Journalism

Tim Currie, director of the University of King's College School of Journalism, said this is "worrisome on a public interest level as images are hugely important in storytelling."

If sources control the record, the public is seeing their story, not one coming from a disinterested perspective, he said. A news photographer will capture the small details that show the humanity, or in some cases, the tensions, of a particular event, he said.

"Tone is so important in relaying what has happened. If you can control the visual tone of an event, I think you have a lot of power."

Photos and political image

Of course, political communicators will always seek to put the turf to their advantage, said Andrew MacDougall, Harper's former director of communication, but it's not always willful.

In 2009, for example, some of the media put up a fuss that they weren't getting adequate access during Harper's trip to the Arctic.

One image in particular, of Harper and his cabinet members sampling seal meat — an action that would certainly play well politically in the region — was taken by Harper's own photographer and distributed to the media. But there were no journalists there to verify whether the meat was sampled or eaten.

MacDougall said this was not a calculated image and that Harper's photographer just happened to be there at the time and snapped the photo.

In this official handout photograph from the Prime Minister's Office dated Aug. 18, 2009, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several members of his cabinet are seen reaching for items on a tray. What are they reaching for? Do they eat whatever was on the tray? The PMO says it was seal meat, and yes, they ate it, but no photojournalist was given access to the event. (Handout/Prime Minister's Office)

If the media were shut out of all access, and the only photos came from the prime minister, the media would certainly have a right to complain and should complain, he said. 

But as long as there's an official opportunity to get a picture of, say, two leaders, "I don't know what more you can do with that," MacDougall said.

Not cut and dried

While news organizations will never get the "fly on the wall" access they crave, there's room to have a conversation about what's reasonable to accept, he continued.

"I don't think it's kind of cut and dried either way," MacDougall said.

Knox said one way news agencies could handle these issues is to be upfront in the cutline, explaining that the image is a handout and that journalists were not allowed access to the news event. 

Josh Greenberg, director of the School of Journalism & Communication at Carleton University, said he understands the dilemma news agencies face in deciding whether to use such images.

"That's a tough one, because the story is relevant, the image is circulating already. What you do is you provide context. That's what journalism does that public relations doesn't do. It provides the context." 

However, there's a fine line between providing the context and telling the story that's of public interest, versus the behind-the-scenes story of here's another example of image management at play.

"That's the cynical story that turns a lot of readers off."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.


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