Images in the news: They cut both ways

Overall learning objective

Students will be able to develop a better understanding of how news photos are being made and chosen to be shown to the audience.

Power of images

In English, there is a phrase “Seeing is believing.” In Chinese, people say “眼見為實(眼见为实) — To see is to believe.” On the internet, this new expression, “有圖(图)有真相 — No photo, no proof,” is also very popular in the Chinese speaking communities.

In fact, many countries have very similar, or even identical, expressions. The idea seems universal. We tend to believe what we see with our own eyes.

That’s why photos and videos are an essential part of the news. Images show what it’s like to be at the scene. Cameras serve as our eyes and ears. We feel like we understand the news better with visual information because, as people often say, a picture is worth a thousand words.


  1. Show the following two video clips.
  2. Have students discuss what advantages photos and videos have in news reporting on top of the points addressed in the videos.

Key takeaways

In class, at least the following points should be addressed after the discussion. A news photo/video:

    • grabs our attention immediately.
    • makes us feel like we are witnessing the news event.
    • focus our attention on a crucial moment(s) in the event.
    • tends to stay longer in our memory, especially some iconic images of historical news events.
    • captures and displays the emotions of people in the news.
    • <video> enables us to hear the actual voices of the people in the news.

Note: It is important to establish the important roles photo/video journalism plays in news reporting before moving on to “gotcha journalism” and image manipulation.

Further reading: The following article adds another dimension to the discussion not only on photojournalism but also on journalism as a whole.

“Iconic” news photos and videos are certainly good at raising awareness, but what happens afterward in our society is arguably more important — something we should also discuss with our students.

Gotcha journalism

News images are powerful storytelling tools that connect us together, but there are a lot of issues we need to be aware of at the same time. Not just doctored images, but also legitimate news photos and videos could also be misleading.

One of the common ways to create a visual narrative is to select an image that freezes a particular moment that gives a certain impression.

The example below illustrates how a news photo can also be editorialized. Both photos are authentic pictures taken by professional journalists at the scene but the impression you would get is very different.

Global Times and Kyodo
Comparison of photo selection. China’s Global Times (left) and Japan’s Kyodo News (right).

The “Koi feeding incident” explained in the article below is another good example of what we call in our curriculum “gotcha” journalism.

Photojournalists can also dramatize the scene. Years ago, photographer Ruben Salvadori documented in Jerusalem this very issue, as seen in the video below.

More recently, news pictures of big crowd gatherings amid the global COVID-19 pandemic crisis have made headlines around the world, but some of those images can be problematic as explained in the news article below.

Activity 1

  • Have students find some local examples of “gotcha” journalism (perhaps as a take-home assignment as this requires time)
  • When discussing the examples they bring in class, focus on what an ordinary news audience can do to understand the missing context surrounding the image/news event.

Activity 2

  • Divide the class into two groups. Protesters and photo/video journalists.
  • Choose a topic that is closely related to the students — something like deteriorating quality of food in student canteens.
  • “Protesters” prepare props and other materials for a march.
  • “Journalists” will be divided into subgroups and each group needs to decide what sort of media organization they work for (newspapers, TVs, online magazines, etc., with different target audiences).
  • Protesters march in the classroom (or outside), holding placards, shoting slogans, and demanding some actions.
  • Photo/video journalists take as many photos/videos from different angles, focusing on different people, objects, and actions.
  • After the march is over, journalist subgroups need to pick just one image, or 5-second video clip, that they will use to promote the story on social media.
  • All students then look at the photos/videos from different news outlets together and discuss potential issues including misrepresentation and dramatization.

Key takeaways

The following video is an edited version of our news literacy video series called Starpline. This particular episode summarizes the points above.

  • Image manipulation is everywhere on the internet.
  • Old pictures, photos from different locations, video games, movie scenes, and other irrelevant images also circulate often as current news images.
  • Although news photos and videos are powerful, they show only a glimpse of what really happened, which can be misleading sometimes.
  • Photographers and videographers have the skills to dramatize the scene that could potentially misrepresent the news event as well.