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Photojournalist or Paparazzo? A Distinction with a Difference

June 21st, 2012 by Mickey Osterreicher and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

All paparazzi are photographers.

But not all photographers are paparazzi.

The problem is that in a time of catchy phrases, it seems that many media outlets are unable or unwilling to take the time to distinguish between the two.

In the aftermath of actor Alec Baldwin’s assault on photographers who were waiting for him on a public street outside the New York City Marriage License Bureau this week, the distinction between the use of the pejorative “paparazzi” as a way to denigrate members of the media is not only unfortunate, but does a disservice to all photographers and journalists who strive to earn a living through visual storytelling.

As a former photojournalist with almost 40 years of experience in both print and broadcast journalism, I strongly believe in personal accountability for our actions and the importance of maintaining the credibility of our profession. I also agree that “accuracy in our work and integrity in our relationships with the public we serve are essential qualities for all photojournalists.” It is for that reason that I am a strong proponent of the NPPA Code of Ethics, which “attempts to foster the spirit of honesty in all aspects of our professional lives.”

In this era of tweets and live-streaming it is certainly important to get the news out fast, if not first; but accuracy should still be the overriding priority. Broadcasting or publishing the absolute latest information does not absolve the press of its obligation to be responsible. The public may wish to dwell in gossip and speculation but reporters, broadcasters, editors and publishers should not.

Which brings us back to the issue of who is a photojournalist and who is a paparazzo? A variety of sources define paparazzo as a noun referring to a freelance photographer who specializes in images of famous people for sale to magazines and newspapers while often invading their privacy to obtain such photographs or video. The word “paparazzi” is the plural of “paparazzo.”

The term gained popularity after the 1960 film La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini, in which one of the characters is a news photographer named Signor Paparazzo. It is said that Fellini used the word because in Italian it is similar to another word for small mosquito, and to the filmmaker was descriptive of the very annoying noise made by that buzzing insect. In the years since it has been used to describe Ron Galella and his photographic pursuit of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, leading to the case of Galella v Onassis and a restraining order keeping Galella a “respectful” distance away from the late First Lady and her children.

Over the years there have been numerous lawsuits by photographers who claim they were injured by celebrities, and some by celebrities who have sued to enjoin photographers from coming too close or invading their privacy.

The term “photojournalist,” on the other hand, refers to those dedicated to a specific aspect of journalism that captures still images and audio-visual recordings for public dissemination in print, by broadcast or online. It is widely understood that photojournalists adhere to strong ethical guidelines ensuring honest, objective and compelling images, created in a straightforward manner while remaining as unobtrusive as possible.

Standing on a sidewalk to take a picture of a celebrity does not make a photographer a paparazzi any more than if he or she were waiting to take a picture of a politician or a criminal. Photojournalists often risk their lives and sometimes are killed while covering wars, political uprisings and natural disasters. Would anyone think to call them paparazzi?

The so-called “legitimate press” has always sought to distinguish itself from the less-than-savory “tabloid paparazzi.” Lately traditional publishers also attempt to distinguish between “mainstream media” and citizen journalists, activists, and bloggers. But all groups use video and still images taken by the very people they distance themselves from in an attempt to compete which blurs the line and makes the definition of who is a journalist even more elusive. This in turn makes the public less trusting and ultimately undermines a free and vibrant press.

None of this absolves anyone of us from our responsibilities. No matter how quickly we deliver it, the message should still be worth hearing. No matter how up-close we can get, the images should still be worth viewing. No matter how advanced the technology, we are all still human.

When reporting on the altercation between New York Daily News photographer Marcus Santos and celebrity Alec Baldwin, it would be wise to look at Santos’ career before labeling him as a paparazzo. According to his website he has been a photojournalist since the late 1990’s with a long list of credits and awards. He prides himself on covering spot news, which is evidenced by his photos of the October, 2011 East River helicopter crash. He has also covered world events in Haiti, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Marcus tells me that he was dispatched by the Daily News to photograph Baldwin after the paper received a tip that he was at the marriage license bureau. So for anyone to say he is a paparazzo is not only grammatically incorrect, but totally inaccurate. In an interview with Charlie Rose after the incident, Baldwin also said that Marcus was not part of the “legitimate press” in a further attempt to justify his actions that day. Such self-serving comments are not only wrong but demean all photojournalists.

In a society increasingly reliant on information and communication, those in the media should be ever vigilant of their obligation to provide accurate, unbiased and timely information rather than rushing to fill space and time with the latest titillating revelations. That goes both for photojournalists who unintentionally get drawn into the story and for the journalists, editors and headline writers who report on those incidents.

Posted in Alec Baldwin, Assault on Photographers, Attack Photographers, Code of Ethics, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, NY Daily News, Paparazzi, Paparazzo, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism | 87 Comments »