The Digital Journalist
Teaching the Wrong Lesson at Berkeley
December 2003

Last summer, the six staff photographers at The Daily Californian, including the photo editor found a piece of paper in their in-boxes. It was called the "New Contributing Photographer Agreement." For the first time, this newspaper at the school with a history of liberal causes, including fights for civil rights, and violent demonstrations against the Vietnam war in the 1960s was siding with the institutional interests.They were also turning their back on copyright laws in denying its photographers rights to their photographs, despite the fact that they were working for paltry amounts.

The photographers, most of whom were photojournalism students, both graduate and undergraduate, refused to sign, and were promptly "locked out" of the newspaper. For those who were depending on garnering the real-life experience of working on a newspaper, the lock out was a huge blow to their education. Some felt forced to sign the agreement just in order to practice journalism.

Work for hire contracts have become the bane of photojournalists. It started with the Associated Press demanding WFH from all photographers who wanted to work for them. It was one thing to ask photographers for all rights to their photographs if they were on staff, receiving a regular salary, health benefits, and pensions in jobs that used to last a lifetime, but quite another to demand the same thing from hapless free lance photographers who were using their own gear, and being paid on a per picture or daily rate. At the time, this contract was considered some sort of weird aberration in the field of freelance editorial photography, which was based on ownership of one's photographs.

Unfortunately, after AP started demanding and getting these rights, the WFH plague started to sweep through photojournalism. It was made clear that nobody was forced to sign these contracts, but if they didn't, they simply could not work for those agencies, newspapers, and magazines. Today it is nearly impossible to find a publication that does not demand some sort of contract that is less than favorable to the photographer, even if it is for only one assignment. The problem is not simply with contracts per se,but with bad contracts that would deprive photographers of their rights to a livelihood.

The result has been devastating to free-lance photojournalism. Few editorial photographers today can afford to practice their craft. The long-range outlook for their careers is bleak. For groups like Editorial Photographers, the organization that serves as a voice for free-lancers, and recently, The National Press Photographers Association has mounted major educational programs, part of which is aimed at students of photojournalism. The purpose is to make them aware of the rights to which they are entitled by law, and awareness of business practices.

There is nothing wrong with media law. It is the way it is interpreted by greedy corporate interests that is the problem. Journalism at its foundation is supposed to be about things like the First Amendment, the art of storytelling, informing the public, and noble traditions of editorial independence.

Reporters and photographers throughout history have been cantankerous defenders of our basic rights. Lack of fear is a prerequisite, whether it is to powerful interests in society, or to the agendas of business. Both the newspaper and the university have refused to comment. By turning their back on the rights of the student photographers at Berkeley, the editors of the paper, the faculty and the Regents are sending a clear message that the rights of journalists are an expendable luxury in today's society.