The E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University is known for its number of distinguished alumni, and on Wednesday one of them was back in Athens to deliver a presentation as part of the school’s 2012 Schuneman Symposium.
Clarence Page, a two-time Pulitzer-winner and current member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, delivered a speech — entitled “Believing is Seeing: How News Images Change Politics” — before a standing-room-only crowd at the theater in Baker University Center.
Over the course of an hour, Page displayed a handful of mostly well-known news photographs and discussed their importance to the perception of world events. He also shared personal stories and demonstrated a sly and at times self-deprecating sense of humor, seeming completely comfortable speaking at the university he graduated from in 1969.
“Media do three things,” said Page, who won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for commentary and participated in a 1972 Tribune series that won a Pulitzer. “We publicize big events. We frame the narratives through which we all understand big events. And, we frame the narrative in a way… that possibly moves us to political action.”
Among the images seen by the audience were those taken by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, whose work defined war in a new way, Page said. The speaker also presented disturbing photos from Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement that helped sway the public’s opinion regarding both issues.
“Pictures have the ability to bring the viewer to the news,” Page said. “They can also distort reality… sometimes complying with the prejudices of the audience, and sometimes being manipulated for propaganda purposes.”
Page’s remarks regarding such famous news photography were appreciated by Debbie Walters, a 1975 Ohio University graduate who was drawn to the symposium by the presence of Laura Flanders but was also “thrilled” to hear him speak.
When asked about her biggest takeaway, Walters said, “The whole thing about [how] a picture can form your opinion before you know the details. It’s kind of like, you see that picture, and you form an opinion around the picture, and then you use the information you get later to fill in the blanks.”
Like others in the audience, Walters was surprised to see a photo Page presented of George Zimmerman, the admitted shooter involved with teenager Trayvon Martin’s death. Unlike the unflattering picture that has been aired by mainstream media outlets for weeks, this photo depicted a clean-shaven, smiling Zimmerman, well-dressed and thinner than he appears in the image the public has grown accustomed to seeing.
In addition to the sparsely shown Zimmerman photo, Page displayed a rarely used image of Martin, a more recent photo taken from the boy’s Twitter profile that shows the teenager sporting a gold grill, which the speaker said might immediately induce assumptions of gangs and violence.
That the media has latched on to certain images of Zimmerman and Martin and ignored others goes a long way in explaining the power and meaning a picture can hold, which was Page’s central message of the afternoon
“I just thought it was insightful,” said Ron Davis, a senior at Ohio University. “It was cool to get the perspective of someone who’s actually in the media. It’s interesting, especially the Trayvon Martin pictures. I thought that was all really interesting.”