As Sydney awoke to a dust-enshrouded Life on Mars zombie apocalypse this morning, news outlets scrambled for photos. Time was once, you’d send out photographers. These days, you just harvest free pictures from the internet. But did take it a little too far?

At 6.06am editor David Higgins tweeted: “Mornign [sic] everyone — if yr in Sydney and have pix of the red dawn I’d be grateful if you cd email to …. ta.” But until the readers’ pics started rolling in, their story carried just one image, credited to “a Twitter user”.

A bit vague. A bit lazy, too, given that the photographer’s identity was just a click away: freelance journalist Simon Sharwood.

“Look, I think it’s just a bit cheap, really. I mean when somebody gives you something, you acknowledge it,” Sharwood told Crikey.

Giving credit is more than just good manners: it’s the law. Section 42 of the Copyright Act 1968 grants a “fair dealing” exemption for news reporting provided there’s “sufficient acknowledgement”. Unless the work is anonymous, pseudonymous or the author has said otherwise, that means a name.

“That was simply an error,” Higgins told Crikey. “Absolutely pictures should be sourced. When Simon alerted us to that we removed it.”

They did. By then, a gallery of photos with proper attributions had been published. The iPhone version still had Sharwood’s picture with the original caption at 11am — more a symptom of poor integration between News’ content management systems than anything else. It was fixed there, too, by 11.40am.

News’ gallery also included a photo  (No.6 in the gallery)  by Valerio Veo, head of SBS News and Current Affairs Online. It, too, was harvested. He wouldn’t have given his photo to a competitor, but he’s not worried.

“It’s a semi-public publishing platform, and as a result I think everyone’s using those photos as part of their news-gathering process and that’s just a reality,” Veo told Crikey.

“We rely on images from Iran and videos from Iran to get our Iranian uprising coverage up and I think it’s just becoming part and parcel of the way news organisations work.”

Higgins says the best stories have always come from readers. “These days that process is on steroids,” he said.

“No news organisation in the world could compete with Twitpic and aggregators. A lot of the news organisations will start to point to those aggregator websites,” Higgins said.

There were dozens of photographers at Circular Quay alone this morning. How many around Sydney? By now there’s thousands of dust storm photos online. Isn’t supply exceeding demand?

“I think it’s incumbent on news organisations to really go to the next level, really try and make something of these photos,” Veo said.

“I’m looking at a lot of photos this morning that have been sent in by punters. Some are good. Most are pretty ropey,” Veo said.

“I still think that there’s a huge call for professional photographers to go out and really capture the moment in iconic locations at certain times. But I think they’re going to have to work a lot harder to maintain that level of quality that news organisations like to profess they have, because the punters are getting savvier and savvier, the technology is getting better and better, and news organisations I think need to do more,” said Veo

But that brings us to salience, a point explored by futurist Mark Pesce.

Photos and comments from friends and family will always be more relevant — more salient — that random strangers, no matter how “iconic”. Social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter and whatever else comes next deliver them to us directly.

As Pesce told Crikey today: “The personal connections we have are still much more efficient than the news media are, that there is no reason for people to turn to the news media any more.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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