T he spectacle of camera crews staking out the paparazzi — those reckless, star-obsessed media voyeurs who relentlessly stalked Princess Diana — is eerie. Suddenly, the spotlight is on those who make money shining the spotlight on the glitterati.
And the international press, including some of the very same editors and publishers who paid handsomely for the paparazzi photographs, is distancing itself from these photographers, claiming that they are not legitimate press. The question is — who is?
The paparazzi consider themselves foot soldiers in a new and growing army of information-gatherers in a media age in which information-gathering has somehow gotten confused with newsgathering. The paparazzi are not news photographers. They are not photojournalists. They are, for the most part, freelancers willing to do anything for a picture. But they are able to take cover in a new media fog in which news, entertainment and gossip have blurred.
And some of the paparazzi have legitimized themselves by taking advantage of the new info bazaar. "Anyone can pick up a camera and call themselves a photographer," says Fred Sweets, the Associated Press' assistant Washington bureau chief for photos. "The difference is that the output [from professional news photographers] comes from years of experience covering news."
As news outlets buy more and more pictures from photo houses instead of sending their own photographers out on assignment, the waters grow murkier. "The distinction is increasingly blurred," says James Adams, chief executive officer of UPI and a former Washington bureau chief for the Sunday Times of London. "The days when newspapers had a huge staff of photographers is waning. Now everybody buys from everybody else."
The new scrutiny photographers — paparazzi and photojournalists — face is the price of a communications revolution that has improved the way we gather and disseminate information without necessarily improving the quality of the product or the qualifications of the practitioners. Journalism is a human endeavor in which the most important tool is judgment. But the 1980s and '90s have brought us new, sophisticated and high-tech tools — better camera lenses, hand-held video cameras, satellite dishes, and the Internet with its open invitation for the public to play reporter. But merely toting the tools of the trade does not make any individual with a camera or a computer a member of the profession. Or does it?
In the late 1980s local television stations began to solicit home videos produced by ordinary citizens. Increasingly, programs began to air amateur videos , and people were encouraged to go out and find events worth recording. With the explosion of information outlets in the 1980s, from cable stations to 24-hour-a-day news services, the appetite for material — any material — grew fast. As the technology became cheaper and more accessible, a new crop of self-appointed reporters and editors arrived on the news scene. I remember the controversy surrounding a piece of video shot in Los Angeles by a witness of a police beating of a man named Rodney King. And I remember the scramble by news outlets for home video and photographs taken by locals who witnessed the start of the L.A. riots after those officers were later found not guilty.
"Photojournalism has become a different profession. The sums of money have increased with the dumbing down of journalism where entertainment is cash," says Adams. "The money is not in reporting on wars or famine, but in getting a picture of a celebrity topless. Today's market is Dodi kissing Diana on a boat in the Mediterranean. That sells."
Publishing material shot by freelancers or ordinary folk who happen upon news is not, by itself, a bad thing — as long as there are competent newspeople making informed decisions about when to cover events and how. But news editors' power has waned as more and more information pours in to more and more places. Lost in all the information traffic are the "information cops," who used to be called "gatekeepers." These editors, news directors and publishers would ask the tough questions: Where did this material come from? Was it properly obtained? Do we have more than one source on that story? Is it a story?
"It is a fine line," says Sweets. "There are those, like some of the paparazzi, who just pick up a camera and catch people in an inappropriate situation. We don't hound celebrities for the sake of hounding them. There has to be a valid news story. Our goal is to deliver visual information to help people understand a news story. But we don't violate people's privacy."
He cautions, however, that even professional photojournalists sometimes cross the line. "Take the case of O.J. Simpson," Sweets says. "O.J. got chased in much the same way as Lady Diana. There were excesses."
The Internet promises to add to the bazaar with improved and innovative access to material. It is a massive databank that could be used to spread information. But who will prevent information users from becoming information abusers? Chat groups can easily be mistaken for informed dialogue. Online articles that peddle rumor and gossip can easily be confused with professional columns.
Take the case of Matt Drudge, the Internet gossip columnist who is being sued by White House aide Sidney Blumenthal for slander. Like the paparazzi, Drudge has prompted additional self-reflection among a media establishment that finds itself in the throes of an identity crisis. Who is in the club and who is not? Though Drudge is a self-proclaimed non-journalist, the public may not be making those fine distinctions.
So how can readers and viewers sort out the professionals from those who simply masquerade as journalists? Adams says they can't. "The audience doesn't know the difference and doesn't care who prepared the material."
And that's worrisome to those like Adams, who have devoted years to practicing "good" journalism. "Twenty-five years ago a foreign correspondent went to Vietnam to report news and get the story first. For the young people going into the business today, you make your name getting a celebrity picture. Have journalistic standards gone down? Yes. Will they keep going down? Yes. And can we stop it?" Adams is not so sure.
Sonenshine, a former editorial producer for ABC's "Nightline" and a former contributing editor for Newsweek, is senior advisor to the Brookings Institution.