Tuesday, April 7, 2020

How a newspaper chooses what you see: a Coronavirus photo essay

It is by no means the most burning issue of our current Pandemic. But it has nevertheless captured my attention, and I think it has a lot to illustrate about how the news media works, and, in a sense, about the malleability of truth.

What am I talking about? I'm talking about dramatic pictures of cities in lockdown and of their attendant empty roads.

So before I make my case in a broader way, we will start with a little photo essay of my city in lockdown. I got a new camera that is barely better than a piece of junk, but hopefully I have managed to extract enough in these pictures to make my point. So let's get started.

Call this

The Twin Cities Goes Silent. 

(My local newspapers (and probably yours) have likely run a photo essay along these lines and featured (better) photos much like these on their front pages):

The highways have fallen silent here in the Twin Cities a few days after the Governor's lock down went into effect.

The neighborhoods look abandoned...

Wildlife has reclaimed civilization. Here a turkey wanders through now unused streets!

And once bustling bridges are left unused.

Okay, so do you got it? My city has fallen empty during the Coronavirus shutdown. And if these were better pictures with a better camera and a better photographer they'd be pretty dramatic. As is they're a little dramatic I hope, or would be if you hadn't already seen a ton of ones just like them. And you get the point. They tell a story. Furthermore they are real, unretouched pictures of actual places. So that counts as news, right, and as documentation of a kind?

So now let's talk about my pictures, and maybe by extension let's talk about all the pictures like these we have seen of closed cities in the past weeks.

Look again at the first one:

First of all, it took me a long time standing on this bridge to get my shot. Cars kept getting in it! In this shot I had some luck and timed the picture right so that a small economy car is actually hidden behind the highway sign near the top of the picture. I also cut off the horizon which, though it nicely showed off some of the Minneapolis skyline, also unfortunately showed... cars. Cars and trucks. Pretty much like this shot below, which was an average shot of the same scene:

Could I have gotten more cars in this shot? Yeah. I wish I did. This was just random for the same spot at that time, a weekday mid morning.

Was it less traffic than usual? Absolutely. Was it quiet and empty? Despite the "evidence" of my first picture, no, never. It was never quiet and empty. The one "empty" picture I waited patiently to get was fake empty with a cropped top and an obscuring sign.

Now to the neighborhood pictures:

I have no shots of these streets with cars because there are never cars on these back neighborhood streets, other than maybe one at a time. And as to wildlife reclaiming the abandoned streets, turkeys just hang out here all the time, regardless of pandemics, not that I wasn't super excited to see them. There were six or seven and this was the last one crossing to a big, rough open wooded area they all magically disappeared into. Clever turkeys!

The bridge is one I see a lot of. It has traffic lights at either end which helps give it moments where it is empty even in moderate traffic times.

So this:

Is more often this:

But to emphasize how manipulative this process is, this shot was hard to get with a lot of cars in it. There is a lock down. The stay at home order does have an effect and it turns out it was pretty easy to get the empty shot.

Still, an average shot is probably like this below. I think the oxygen truck adds verisimilitude. It's only four cars. It's quiet, but we're not a ghost town.

The point is that the news doesn't thrive on complexity; it thrives on the dramatic. The empty shots tell a story. It is symbolic, partially accurate, and even in some ways reportorial, but the danger is that it pretends to be neutral. It isn't neutral because there are at least two stories here (though surely there are far more). One is:

The State is in an extraordinary emergency pandemic shutdown. Look how quiet it has gotten and how great we're doing.


The State is in an extraordinary emergency pandemic shutdown but it mostly voluntary and only somewhat, unevenly observed.

To my mind the second is the more true story. But my local papers and media are far more invested in the first story and believe that to be more true. So my library running a sloppy in relation to quarantine curbside pickup to get the bored (white) people out of their homes has now lead to a second large system starting their own poorly run curbside pickup scheme in the midst of a stay at home lock down because we are doing just fine. This is how the Governor is playing the story too. Go stretch your legs. Go for a drive. Pop on out to the Home Depot. Get a book from the library. We're doing fine. It's tough, but we're coming through it together.

And maybe we are. 

But that's not news exactly. It's an argument.


  1. This is a thoughtful piece and represents a lot of work. I think it's worthy of a wider audience.

  2. I agree with you and believe all American news is sensationalism regardless of the topic. I commend you, as a fellow Twin Cities citizen as I have never seen an empty highway road surprised you even got that picture with no cars. Came here from Reddit.

    1. Well, welcome. Yep, it was mostly a challenge to get empty. I am writing this right now with a road out my window with the cars streaming past... sure are a lot of nurses!


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