If you thought photo-sharing app Instagram was little more than a platform for rich kids to post photos of their luxury yachts, think again. Journalists and news organisations are increasingly using the social networking application, bought for $1 billion in April of this year by Facebook, as a tool for reporting on news and events.
NPR, NBC, The New York Times, The New Yorker, WSJ and The Washington Post are just some of the major news outlets that are seeking to harness the opportunities provided by Instagram’s blend of social interaction and content creation. Only last week photojournalists covering the 2012 presidential election for the AP were asked by the organisation to use their personal Instagram feeds in a professional capacity:#aponthetrail is designed to give the public an intimate insight into elements of the U.S presidential campaign that often go unreported.
Instagram currently has 80 million users who produce 5 million photographs every day and the "like" option that accompanies each image actively encourages user engagement. The combination of a large online community and interactive functions is a heady mix for news titles eager to raise the profile of their brand amongst a digital audience. Speaking to Columbia Journalism Review Santiago Lyon, the AP’s Director of Photography, said the incorporation of Instagram into journalists’ assignments complemented the organisation’s broader social media strategy. “We’d been seeing our photographers using iPhones to shoot offbeat, strange, interesting moments they’d come across, so we asked them to get Instagram accounts to formalize it. We’re seeing the coming together of journalism and social media, which complements mainstream journalism,” Lyon said.
Instagram is also becoming a valuable resource for journalists with little photographic experience. Ashley Parker, a New York Times reporter who has been following Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, detailed her love of Instagram in a phone interview with Slate’s Heather Murphy. Although only a few of Parker’s behind-the-scenes photos have made their way to the Times’ politics blog, they nonetheless add a different perspective to the more formal reports that come from the campaign trail.
Yet not everyone is convinced that the photo app has a role to play in journalism and reporting. News photographer Nick Stern wrote an opinion piece for CNN.com titled “Why Instagram photos cheat the viewer.” In it, Stern condemns the use of "app doctored" photos by news organisations as unethical, believing that the application of Instagram’s range of filters and produces a false image, that bears little relation to reality. Stern goes on to claim that Instagram allows anyone with a camera to produce “fine art” with the click of a button – an assertion that may be something of an exaggeration. In the same way that taking a photo in black and white does little to improve a poor quality photo, nor does adding a "vintage" feel to an image improve problems of composition or focus.
That said, the doctoring of images is undoubtedly a real concern for journalism. Filters can greatly alter the atmosphere of a photo, rendering it more dramatic or tranquil according to the photographer’s wishes. Adjusting and tweaking photos on Instagram is not obligatory however, and the majority of prominent news media companies with Instagram feeds have been sensitive to the issues of context and truth raised by the application’s editing features. NPR, an early contributor to the photo-sharing app, insists that all photographs uploaded to its Instagram account adhere to the same journalistic standards as those published on its main site. The AP has followed suit, while some news media organisations prefer to play it safe and avoid using Instagram in the reporting of serious news. Both The Wall Street Journal and The NYTimes have limited their use of Instagram to fashion week coverage, a domain where filter use is unlikely to provoke debate on the ethics of photo apps.
It is debatable as to whether the Instagram app will prove to be as effective a tool for news brands and organisations as Facebook and Twitter. In its current state Instagram does not allow users to link to other sources, like websites, related stories or other photographs; as a result, it is less suited to becoming a mainstream platform for journalistic exploits than other social media programs. That said, those journalists who have embraced Instagram do not tend see it as a replacement for traditional photojournalism. Rather, the site is viewed largely as a way for news photographers to engage with the public, to receive feedback and understand which photos have the greatest impact.
As Murphy rightly points out, “Instagram is a quickly-changing ecosystem that anyone can enter on his or her own journalistically lofty terms. They just have to be willing to play.”