@WorldPressPhoto: Visual Excellence and Sub-Standard Governance

‘When the result of the World Press multimedia contest was announced it was noticeable  that among the winners was work by NPR. The chair of the judges this year was Keith Jenkins, whose job title is ‘Supervising Senior Producer for Multimedia, NPR‘.  In the press release there was no mention of whether Jenkins stood down from his role as chair of judges whilst NPR’s work was under discussion.’

This week the people who have constructed some of the most compelling photos, photofilms and interactive websites during 2012 will gather in Amsterdam for the World Press Awards.

There’s great work on show but once again the governance of the awards falls well short of the visual excellence.

One of the major arguments for a free press is the important role it can play in holding institutions with power to account.  Through its Reporting Change programme the World Press Foundation is engaged in a 2.7 million euro governance programme, currently training some of the most promising photographers in the Middle East.:

The project Reporting Change will run between 2012 and 2014, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. World Press Photo and Human Rights Watch aim to report on and support democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa, using complementary approaches — visual journalism training in the case of World Press Photo, and research and advocacy in the case of Human Rights Watch.

The outcome should be photographers trained in ways to report change within their region. Ultimately helping to hold newly elected politicians to account for their actions; helping to develop more democratic societies that serve the people better than under previous regimes.

Given the huge amount of money invested in this project you would think that The World Press Awards would want to act as a role model and apply basic standards of governance to its own awards?

It’s well understood that if you want to both conduct and be seen to conduct business in a fair and transparent way you have to build systems that as much as possible eliminate conflicts of interest from the decision making process.

Here’s how the Pulitzer prize deals with conflict of interest:

We operate under strict conflict-of-interest rules: If a board member works for the same newspaper chain, or serves on the same departmental faculty, or even is a close friend of a finalist, he or she leaves the room. Afterward, that person learns of the decision – and nothing more.’

It’s pretty obvious stuff really.

When the result of the World Press multimedia contest was announced it was noticeable  that among the winners was work by NPR. The chair of the judges this year was Keith Jenkins, whose job title is ‘Supervising Senior Producer for Multimedia, NPR‘.  In the press release there was no mention of whether Jenkins stood down from his role as chair of judges whilst NPR’s work was under discussion.

I tweeted him and World Press to find out. This was the response

I was interested as to what these ‘many safeguards’ are? Why do the World Press Awards feel the need for ‘many safeguards’ when for most other competitions only one is needed: where there’s a conflict of interest the judge steps down. So I  wrote to  World Press and Jenkins (edited email below)

 

Hi Maarten (Deputy at World Press) and Keith,

I just wanted to follow up on some tweets I sent about an apparent conflict of interest in the judging of the years Multimedia awards ….

During the recent multimedia competition context Keith Jenkins acted as the chair of the judges. It is reasonable to expect then that he would not oversee the judging of any category in which his company had an entry. The results show that NPR multimedia picked up an award. The conflict of interest here is heightened by the fact that according to his job title Keith supervises multimedia at NPR.

How was this handled? Did Keith chair the judges when the work he oversees at NPR was open to discussion or did he step aside, and was he allowed to vote?

In World Press’s response to duckrabbit’s tweets you said

‘We’re confident that the many safeguards in our judging system eliminate overbearing personal interest in voting’

What are they?

 

Jenkins didn’t respond but Barbara Bufkens from the press office did:

Dear Benjamin,

Thank you for your question.

 To guarantee that the jury can make fair and high quality judgments, we have a very detailed judging guideline in place. Jury secretary, Alan Stoga, ensures this procedure is strictly followed. (As a gentle reminder, he has no voting rights). The following two points are part of the guideline and have been taken into account while judging all productions and throughout the entire judging process.

 “Quality & Faireness”

2. If jury members are involved in a production in the contest in a professional or nonprofessional manner, they ought to state the connection openly during any discussions

on the work.

3. Before the start of the second round judging the secretary will check the professional involvement of the jurors in any of the work submitted in order to see to it that jury

members declare any conflict of interest with regards to them.

 I hope this answers your question.

In fact it didn’t answer my questions at all, which were pretty straightforward, so I wrote again:

Just for the sake of clarity and going back to my original questions, from your answer I can surmise that being chair of the judges would not prevent Keith from performing that function when his own companies work was being evaluated and would not have prevented him from voting for it. The ‘safeguard’ is that Alan would have observed this and Keith would have made the conflict known. I’m baffled. Am I missing something? If a conflict of interest doesn’t prevent someone from voting, as it would in say the Pulitzer,  what difference does it make by declaring it?

To which I got this response from somebody else in the press office:

The judging process contains safeguards at three levels. First of all there is the professionalism and integrity of each of the jury members, both of those members with an interest and those without. Secondly there are the rules; each jury member is required to state interest (extensively discussed prior to the start of the judging) and as from the third round World Press Photo runs background checks on the images still in contest informing the secretary of potential conflicts so he/she can intervene if there is any hint of hidden agendas. Finally there is the design of the system; the individual influence of any single jury member decreases as the process progresses. Ultimately any single jury member can allocate a maximum of 7% of the total points that can be given in the final to any single production. The whole process is thus designed to stimulate professionalism, transparency and collective decision-making which to our mind eliminates overbearing personal interest.

World Press and Jenkins refuse to answer the simple question as to whether Jenkins chaired the judging of his own companies work and then voted for it.  What they do say is that even if that did take place it’s absolutely not a system open to corruption because the vote is only worth 7%. To which I say: nuts.

If the photographers from the Middle East on World Press’ training  came up against such poor justifactions of governance sytems in their own countries; sytems that fail to discriminate against conflicts of interest, then they won’t be short of stories of corruption to report on.

What’s really surprising is that so many people in the photojournalism community are comfortable with World Press operating such a system.  Better, it seems, to be a part of a system open to corruption that you can benefit from than stand outside it and criticise. The question is better for who?

From a personal point of view I feel sorry for Claire O’Neill the talented producer at NPR who picks up the award this week.   I wouldn’t want to win an award if the voting was chaired by another member of duckrabbit. Its cheap and the World Press should stop it from happening.

Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White.We specialize in digital storytelling.

Discussion (9 Comments)

  1. Well Ben, that’s a bloody disheartening post.

    Given the pressures on photojournalism, the various proclamations of its imminent demise, and the wider distrust generated in some circles by perceptions of ‘manipulation’ of images, you’d think that the gatekeepers would be falling over themselves to be seen to be operating with the utmost transparency and integrity.

    Sadly they seem not to realize that there is a world of a difference between saying
    “We have a system that we are confident is transparent” and actually having a system that everyone else can see and agree is truly transparent.

    • duckrabbit says:

      ‘Sadly they seem not to realize that there is a world of a difference between saying
      “We have a system that we are confident is transparent” and actually having a system that everyone else can see and agree is truly transparent.’

      It would seem obvious but …

  2. Stan B. says:

    As usual, you’re missing the point- and perhaps purposely so! As was clearly stated- there are Rules AND Safeguards in place to prevent what you seem to suggest. Anything of question that could possibly get through those most stringent of defenses must then deal with the final platform in this most vigilant Triad Defense System… DESIGN- The ultimate arbitrator of integrity known to mankind.

    I hear it’s pretty much based on the same system they had in place at Abu Ghraib.

  3. Stan B. says:

    No, no- let’s give credit where credit’s due. That was some masterfully written hilarity/obfuscation on their part- and no doubt presented while maintaining a straight face.

    Welcome to the grade school, New World Order where Everyone (on the team) Is A Winner!

  4. Peter says:

    World Press seem to be operating what we call here in Britain the ‘Good Chap’ governance system. It’s very simple to work – ‘Because we’re all good chaps with the highest integrity, there’s no need for any further governance system’.

    Good governance, in government, business or aid and development is about creating systems that demonstrate publicly that every effort has been made to remove the potential for corrupt practice or a conflict of interest. World Press could have done this very simply by having the Chair of the judges absent himself from the discussion that related to his own organisation’s work. World Press’s subsequent failure to acknowledge why that omission might be viewed from an outside perspective as poor procedure is disheartening.

  5. Roxanne says:

    You are a bloody-minded journalist at heart. Good work.

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