ARC Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA)

TITLE: Citizen photo-journalism: how is it shaping the news?

PROJECT ID: DE160100120

Project duration: 3 years (July 2016 – June 2019)

This project is charged with investigating contemporary practices in photojournalism in the Australian news media in the wake of massive layoffs among press photographers. This includes the ways in which citizens and organisations outside of journalism are re-shaping and re-defining photojournalistic practice through their engagement with the digital economy.


The 21st century has brought unprecedented institutional, technological and social change to every aspect of professional journalism. By and large, the industry response has been to decimate staffing levels (Young 2010; Zion 2013): Between 2009 and 2017 the two major Australian newspaper companies Fairfax Media and News Corp Australia (who between them control more than 90 per cent of Australian newspaper circulation), have laid off thousands of newspaper staff, including photographers. In 2012, Fairfax shed 1900 jobs, News Corp (then News Limited) more than a thousand (Meade 2014), with 45 of 270 News Corp photographers losing their jobs in that round of redundancies (Lee 2012). Press photographers bore the brunt of the 2014 cuts, when Fairfax Media decimated its photography department (Bowers 2014), shedding 75 per cent of its photographers, and turning to Getty Images, among other agencies, to source its images. In its heyday in the 1970s, the Sydney Morning Herald, one of Fairfax’s flagship newspapers, employed 32 graded photographers and 6 cadets. In 2014 there were only five photographers left in Sydney (Anderson and Young 2016: 295). It is claimed that the news media now relies on external sources, both professional (Getty Images) and amateur, to act as ‘historical witness’ (Zelizer 2007; Witschge 2013:166). It is the implications of this reliance on external imagery, especially from amateur sources, that is the focus of investigation in this project.

Citizen ‘photo-journalism’ is everywhere: each year, billions of images are produced and shared via social media platforms that not only tell the stories of our lives, but are also managed and structured through invisible algorithms that harness attention and create value (Carah 2014: 142). The rise in the sourcing of citizen ‘photo-journalism’ from social media outlets by the mainstream media has been matched by the rise in ethical, moral and legal concerns (Pantti & Bakker 2009; Singer 2011), on the one hand, and questions regarding the democratization of the news making process (Hjorth 2007; Jönsson & Örnebring 2010; Holton et al 2013), on the other hand. This project assesses the impact that these fundamental changes are having on both industry and society in Australia. Specifically, the project aims to:

  1. Map contemporary practices in the sourcing of news imagery by Australian news media organisations;
  2. Identify the values associated with professional and amateur practices in photography, and assess their relative capacities to bear effective witness;
  3. Assess professional photojournalism’s experience of structural transformation and its capacity to adapt positively to change;
  4. Assess the claim that modern audiences increasingly demand the eyewitness perspective (Taubert 2012), and the extent to which the Australian news media is able to meet this demand;
  5. Examine the extent to which the Australian news media is in line with the expression of public sentiment through social media platforms on events of cultural, political, and historical significance.

Key outcomes from this project include:

  • a complete picture of contemporary practice in relation to the sourcing of images by the Australian news media;
  • a deeper understanding of the ethical/moral/legal issues concerning citizen ‘photo-journalism’;
  • an assessment of the impact of citizen ‘photo-journalism’ on the cultural authority of the news media; and
  • an assessment of the extent to which we are moving towards the democratization of the news making process.

The project makes use of case studies and interviews to investigate image sourcing practices by the Australian news media. Each case study aligns closely with the project aims.

1: Who is being given the task of bearing witness in the Australian news media is the focus of the first research aim of this project.

This question is addressed through a large-scale survey of image sourcing practices using quantitative content analysis. Media monitoring includes the following news websites: Fairfax Media’s, News Corp’s, the public broadcaster’s news site, and Guardian Australia’s Websites have been surveyed as they provide the most flexibility in image display and innovation in visual storytelling, e.g. picture galleries (Caple & Knox 2012). Data sampling followed the constructed week method over 14 weeks (between July and October 2017) to yield two constructed weeks, which is in line with the minimum recommended by Hester & Dougall (2007:820) for the content analysis of online news.

A database has been designed for collating data on image sourcing practices. The database provides a very powerful tool that can be used to uncover trends in the data and to allow for systematic comparisons across all of the collected data. It is also compatible with other software programs (e.g. MS Word and Excel), which allows me to render the data more accessible to a general audience. The image sourcing survey maps contemporary practices in the sourcing of news imagery by Australian news media organisations.

More information and key results from this study can be found here.

2&3: The second and third aims of this project examine whether external sources can be held to the same standards and values as news media professionals, and whether citizen ‘photo-journalism’ may be seen as a viable alternative source of imagery in terms of its depth and breadth of coverage.

The method deployed here involves qualitative ethnographic research through face-to-face interviews with industry professionals. These interviews are set to take place during the first half of 2018. More information on the results of these interviews will be posted here as they become available.

The interviews are expected to yield industry perspectives on the values associated with professional and amateur practices regarding the capacity to bear effective witness, and on professional photojournalism’s experience of structural transformation and its capacity to adapt positively to change.

4&5: The fourth and fifth aims of this project are to examine the extent to which there may be a correlation between emerging representations of society and public sentiment published on social media and captured in citizen ‘photo-journalism’ and the news imagery published by the mainstream media.

These aims have been addressed through comparative qualitative multimodal analysis of select imagery published on Instagram and in the news publications surveyed above. Instagram has been chosen for analysis because of its domination of the image market and because it makes use of readily searchable hashtags, which filter images into searchable categories.

Three case studies have been devised which focus on events of cultural significance (Australia Day 2017), of political significance (the Federal Election 2016), and of historical significance (the South Australian storms that impacted significantly on infrastructure in September 2016).

All images associated with these three events have been collected from the news media surveyed above on the day it occurs and two days either side in the first two cases, and four days after in the case of the spot news event.

The images have been subjected to qualitative multimodal discourse analysis, using the analytical methods I have developed in previous studies of news photography (Caple 2013), while at the same time drawing on the tools developed by Kress and van Leeuwen (2006) for image analysis. These include an examination of representational meaning, uncovering the subject matter and perspectives represented in the image (by assessing activity sequences and roles of image participants), interpersonal meaning, uncovering the sentiments expressed through images (by assessing how the images engage audiences evaluatively), and textual meanings, uncovering the aesthetic qualities of the images (by assessing the composition of the images).

The qualitative analysis assesses the claim that modern audiences demand the eyewitness perspective and the extent to which the Australian news media is able to meet this demand, and whether the Australian news media is in line with the expression of public sentiment through social media platforms on events of cultural, political, and historical significance.

More information and key results from the case studies can be found here.

A data visualization of results of Instagram analysis pertaining to the Australian federal election can be found here.



Anderson, F. & Young, S. 2016, Shooting the Picture: Press Photography in Australia. Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press.

Bowers, M. 2014, Photography requires skill. It’s sad to see good Fairfax employees being let go, Guardian, May 7.

Caple , H. 2013, Photojournalism. A Social Semiotic Approach. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Caple, H. & Knox, J. 2012, ‘Online news galleries, photojournalism and the photo essay,’ Visual Communication 11/2: 1-30.

Carah, N. 2014, ‘Curators of databases: Circulating images, managing attention and making value on social media’, Media International Australia 150: 137-142.

Hester, J.B. & Dougall, E. 2007, ‘The efficiency of constructed week sampling for content analysis of online news,’ Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 84(4): 811-824.

Hjorth, L. 2007, ‘Snapshots of almost contact: the rise of camera phone practices and a case study in Seoul, Korea’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 21(2): 227-238.

Holton, A.E,  Coddington, M. & Gil de Zúñiga, H. 2013, ‘Whose news? Whose values?’ Journalism Practice,7(6): 720-737.

Jönsson, A.M. & Örnebring, H. 2011, ‘User-generated content and the news’, Journalism Practice 5(2): 127-144.

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. 2006, Reading Images. The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd ed., London/New York: Routledge.

Lee, J. 2012, News plans to shed photographers, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 August. Accessed 24 August 2017.

Meade, A. 2014, News Corp Australia leaked accounts show 1,000 jobs cut across mastheads, Guardian Australia, 20 August. Accessed 24 August 2017.

Pantti, M. & Bakker, P. 2009, ‘Misfortunes, memories and sunsets: Non-professional images in Dutch news media,’ International Journal of Cultural Studies 12(5): 471–489.

Singer, J.B. 2011, ‘Taking responsibility. Legal and ethical issues in participatory journalism,’ in J.B. Singer et al (Eds), Participatory Journalism: Guarding Open Gates at Online Newspapers. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell: 121-138.

Taubert, E. 2012, ‘So, you’re still using the phrase citizen-journalism?’ Daily Crowdsource, accessed 12 January 2015,

Witschge, T. 2013, ‘Transforming journalistic practice,’ in C. Peters & M. Broersma (Eds), Rethinking Journalism. London: Routledge: 160-172.

Young, S. 2010, ‘The journalism ‘‘crisis’’: Is Australia immune or just ahead of its time?’ Journalism Studies 11(4): 610-624.

Zelizer, B. 2007, ‘On ‘‘Having Been There’’: ‘‘Eyewitnessing’’ as a journalistic key word,’ Critical Studies in Media Communication 24(5): 408-428.

Zion, L. 2013, ‘New beats: Where do redundant journalists go? The Conversation, accessed 13 January 2015,