Seeing the Unseen: A guide to understanding media

The Muppets only show us what's in the frame, but understanding their genius is seeing what otherwise goes unseen.

The Muppets only show us what’s in the frame, but understanding their genius means seeing what otherwise goes unseen.

When it comes to media, what we don’t see matters as much as what appears. Of course, how do you know what you don’t see?

Every journalist leaves some great quotes and details behind in order to create a good story. It doesn’t mean they leave out relevant facts, it just means they need to cut in order to clarify. Plus, they rarely tell you the origin of a story. Did it come from their own experience? Did a PR person pitch it? Was this an editor’s suggestion? Did they start reporting on something else and stumble across this gem?

This matters because it better helps us in PR learn how to bring journalists stories that matter to them. Just because someone writes a story about coffee doesn’t mean they’re interested in other coffee-related stories. How they came to write that article and what engaged them about that particular story is often more important than the subject. PR people often forget this and will begin emailing reporters with pitches that don’t match their area of expertise or passion.

The easiest place to understand this is in the world of photography. Today, people take pictures as a quick process in which we snap almost without thought. But true photography is something entirely different. During a recent interview, Photographer Tom Zimberoff brought that differentiation to light by pointing out “photographs, which are 2 dimensional objects which you can hold in your hand and admire with completely different aesthetic qualities than you see on a computer screen.” He also said that Instragram is to photography as texting is to prose.

For many photographers, however, the work has a huge editing component. They take an idea, snap the shutter, select only the images worth using, modify them in some way to better tell the story, then only show their best work. This is true whether you’re talking about carefully staged art photography or more journalistic “decisive moment” photography.

Ansel Adams wrote three seminal works that break the photographic process into distinct areas: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. While the idea of a “negative” has been replaced with a digital file, the three-step execution remains. What you do with the camera is distinct from the images you capture that are distinct from the product finally produced. Of course, the modification can go too far, as it has recently in some journalistic circles.

One of the most amazing moments in my own photography education was viewing the contact sheets produced by Diane Arbus. I had been experimenting with a camera similar to hers and would have the occasional misfire or an out-of-focus shot. These frustrated me as I wanted every image to turn into gold. That is, until I saw her contact sheets and found the same errors. I learned that she would often spend a day or more shooting but only deemed a few images as worthy of printing.

One if Diane Arbus' most famous photographs.

One of Diane Arbus’ most famous photographs.

Among her more famous works is one of a set of twins, an image that inspired such iconic film moments as the twins in The Shining. The father of those twins once commented that he felt it was a lousy picture of his daughters. But that wasn’t Arbus’ point. She liked capturing something off in her images, which is why she loved photographing nudist colonies and what subjects who she termed “freaks.” To her, the twins were part of that narrative: the odd ends of society.

cutsheet

But if you look at her contact sheets you can almost see the “notes” she’s taking as she’s creating the narrative. She has a series of photographs with twins, all standing next to one another dressed alike (she came to a gathering of twins specifically to get two kids who looked alike). Each set of twins was photographed a number of times in different locations and focal lengths.

Then she took all these images, found the one that came closest to the story she wanted to tell, and that image went on to become famous. We have a better sense of what she was trying to say by looking at what she didn’t say.

The same goes for reporters. As PR people, we can learn a lot about a reporter by looking at their other stories, following their social presence, and even reading other quotes or articles written by the people who are interviewed. All that data begins to tell us what’s missing and can help us as we pitch reporters new stories.

By knowing what’s missing, we can know how to fill in blanks and better understand what’s valuable to different journalists.

Mower

About Mower Boston

Boston's Mower office is a full-service technology marketing, PR and branding agency. Our B2B stories illustrate projects and campaigns in a variety of markets and media that range from local impact in Boston and New England to global proportions.

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