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Measuring Photo Credibility in Journalistic Contexts: Scale Development and Application to Staff and Stock Photography

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Noting its absence, this article presents a newly-developed scale that specifically measures the construct of photo credibility in journalistic contexts. The scale was developed using adaptations of previous media-credibility scale statements and applying them to the context of photography that appears in the news. Using the scale, the study addresses audience perceptions of the credibility of stock photographs versus photographs taken by newspaper-staff photojournalists. The scale proves reliable, and through its use, it is suggested that participants in the study perceive stock photos as significantly less credible than those taken by staff photojournalists. Dimensions of credibility within the scale provide opportunity for more nuanced examination of the nature of these differences of perception.


Audience perceptions of media credibility have long been studied from a number of angles, most often perceptions as a medium or source (Metzger et al., Citation2003; Sundar and Nass Citation2001). But despite the visual-centric nature of contemporary media, studies of the perceived credibility of photographs that appear in a news context remain sparse and have not kept up with present issues affecting the United States photojournalism. Credibility has been defined as believability (Tseng and Fogg Citation1999), but is a complex construct with myriad facets. In the few instances when photograph credibility has been studied, researchers have used broad measures that do not address concerns unique to imagery (e.g., Allan and Peters Citation2015; Gayle et al. Citation2018; Greer and Gosen Citation2002; Huang Citation2001). To the authors’ knowledge, few have attempted to address this issue of fit (see Snyder Citation1997, in an unpublished dissertation). One purpose of the present research is to develop a reliable scale for the examination of perceptions of the credibility of images that illustrate the news.

A number of issues have rendered the study of credibility perceptions of visuals in the news particularly relevant. For example, the nature of visuals accompanying news has changed with the layoffs of photojournalists in the United States over the past two decades. Specifically, images beyond those taken by staff photojournalists are abundant. Citizen-shot photographs, file photos, wire images and stock photography comprise a growing proportion of images in the news landscape (Aiello Citation2016; Greenwood and Thomas Citation2015; Mortensen and Gade Citation2018). The implications of these changes are just beginning to be examined.

One type of imagery, stock photography, has traits inherently opposite those of the truthful nature of traditional professional photojournalism, as stock images are acted out and staged. They make an ideal case to study perceptions of credibility, a construct intertwined with notions of believability and truth. Stock photographs are “pre-produced images” that have become the “raw material for the world’s visual media” (Aiello Citation2016, n.p.), and they are particularly understudied . Therefore, the second purpose of this research is to use the new scale to examine audience perceptions of the credibility of stock images versus staff-taken images presented in a news context.

Addressing the dual issues of (1) a need for credibility studies pertaining to contemporary images in the news and (2) a lack of measures to do so, this study develops a reliable scale and makes use of it in a quasi-experiment of the perceived credibility of stock photographs versus photographs taken by the United States staff photojournalists.

Review of the Literature


While credibility is a seemingly intuitive concept related to trust and belief; “each of us believes some sources of information more than others,” Self (Citation1996) explains that “the literature on credibility is plentiful, contradictory, and confused” (421). In his explication, Self explains that theories of communication credibility have been discussed since Aristotle, centering on the source, audience or message characteristics. The issue is broadly about whether an audience’s trust is earned. Early communication researchers began the empirical study of credibility by examining source and media characteristics, as well as message characteristics and audience demographics. More current audience theories explore the increasing skepticism of the media audiences express.

Measurements of media credibility have primarily been conceptualized as resulting from perceptions of a certain medium or source (Metzger et al., Citation2003; Sundar and Nass Citation2001). Credibility is not an objective characteristic of the media, but instead relies upon the attribution from the viewer or reader (Tseng and Fogg Citation1999). In an early examination, Hovland and Weiss (Citation1951) suggested two main components for measuring source credibility perceptions: trustworthiness and expertize. Whenapplied to journalism these measures could examine the influence of the perceived expertize of the j photojournalist upon the credibility of a message. Further research subdivides the broad concepts of trustworthiness and expertize into smaller components, including accuracy, fairness, completeness, reliability, motivation for money, respect of privacy, community well-being, objectivity, competence and trustworthiness (e.g., Gaziano and McGrath Citation1986; Kiousis Citation2001; Metzger et al., Citation2003).

Many pre-1990s studies focused on medium credibility, typically newspaper versus television in early studies. In a seminal such study, Gaziano and McGrath (Citation1986) reported the results of the American Association of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) survey. Beginning with 16 dimensions of credibility, the items that ultimately grouped together concerned whether newspapers and television news: are fair, are unbiased, tell the whole story, are accurate, respect people’s privacy, watch out after people’s interests, are concerned about the community’s well-being, separate fact and opinion, can be trusted, are concerned about the public interest, are factual and have well-trained reporters. The Gaziano and McGrath scale has been used and applied differently by a number of other scholars, including Rimmer and Weaver (Citation1987), Newhagen and Nass (Citation1989) and Meyer (Citation1988).

Studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s frequently turned to perception studies of the credibility of online media versus other media. For example, Johnson and Kaye (Citation1998) surveyed politically interested Web users online to examine whether they view Web publications as being as credible as their traditionally-delivered counterparts, finding that online versions tended to be judged more credible than the traditional deliveries. Flanagin and Metzger (Citation2000), Kiousis (Citation2001) and other scholars similarly studied credibility perceptions of online versus other kinds of media. Using a slightly different approach, Winter and Krämer (Citation2014) used six pairs of semantic differentials, adopted from Gierl, Stich, and Strohmayr (Citation1997) to create a unidimensional credibility score to in a study that suggested perceived credibility is associated with selective exposure to news on the Internet. Other uses of credibility measures are apparent throughout the 2000s, including Nah and Chung (Citation2012), who were interested in newspaper journalists’ perceptions of credibility and its relationship with role conceptions of journalists.

Noting its relevance in the era of social media, Appelman and Sundar (Citation2016) developed a scale of message credibility: “an individual’s judgement of the veracity of the content of a communication” (64). This scale drew from literature about medium and source credibility, as no message-specific scales were available. The authors “compiled all of the media measures that seemed plausible in the context of messages” (64), paring them down in a meaning analysis. The resulting scale contained just three items. The measure involves asking participants “How well do the following adjectives describe the content you just read?” (from 1 = describes very poorly to 7 = describes very well): accurate, authentic and believable. In the study of photojournalism these broad concepts, among others, must apply specifically to visual media to be answered accurately. For example, perceived inauthenticity can be a result of editing, staging and other forms of manipulation.

Credibility studies pertaining to perceptions of visuals in the news have primarily focused on digital alteration, a particularly relevant topic with the mainstreaming of digital images at the turn of the century (e.g., Greer and Gosen Citation2002; Schwartz Citation2020; Wheeler and Gleason Citation1995; Wheeler Citation2005). Each of these examinations used previously developed scales of medium or source credibility. More recently, in a yet to be published piece, Gayle et al. (Citation2018) presented three experimental groups and one control group with five photographs and asked them to take a questionnaire in a field experiment that examined perceptions of the source credibility of images that were labeled as having been taken by a professional versus not having this label. Similarly, this study used a previously developed scale (Flanagin and Metzger Citation2000), ultimately finding that the professional label did not affect overall credibility ratings. Relatedly, participants in a study by the National Press Photographer’s Association rated photographs with traditionally “professional” characteristics, including high emotion, as higher in quality and more memorable (Adam Citation2007). In an unpublished dissertation, Snyder (Citation1997) aimed to specifically study the credibility perceptions of news photographs, adapting and creating a number of statements. The semantic-differential statements drew from some of the concepts found in previous media credibility studies and also implements some new measures that are specific to digital photo alteration, including. However, the statements are treated individually and not compiled as a scale.

The Shifting Composition of News Visuals

The challenges facing photojournalism lend to a greater need to study perceptions of the credibility of the images that appear in the news. Between 2008 and 2017, newsroom employment in the United States fell by 23%, with newspapers losing approximately 45% of their employees (Grieco Citation2018). Layoffs have also created smaller newsrooms from Germany to Australia, among many other countries (Langley Citation2012; Hurst Citation2020). Photojournalists in particular have faced shrinking staffs. Layoffs of entire photojournalism staffs have become increasingly common (Anderson Citation2013; Hadland, Lambert, and Campbell Citation2016; Mortensen & Gade, Citation2018; Winslow Citation2013). In the 24-hour news cycle era, the quickest—but not necessarily the best—photos are sometimes published, regardless of the creator (Klein-Avraham and Reich Citation2016). Some say that in the digital era, “the photographer is irrelevant” (Klein-Avraham and Reich Citation2016, 438). In an era when staff photojournalists are scarce, even well-respected news organizations such as Poynter suggested using stock photos (Hare Citation2018). The organization later published the negative reactions and ethical concerns photojournalists raised about the article.

There are suggestive relationships between the decline of photojournalism and the rise of stock imagery in news outlets, although no quantitative research yet exists that measures the usage or frequency of stock imagery in journalistic outlets. The overall growth of the stock photography industry has occurred in the same period that “photojournalists have been on the chopping block” (Schiller Citation2013, n.p.). When the New York Daily News fired all ten staff photojournalists in July 2018, photographer Marcus Santos worried that the watchdog function of the newspaper would suffer (Burton Citation2018). Five months later, on 5 December 2018, accessing the front page of the Daily News website at 9:20pm EST would lead you to stock photographs illustrating news stories about the enrollment of New Yorkers in the Affordable Care Act (Lovett Citation2018) and a meeting at the Centers for Disease Control about a polio-like illness (Braine Citation2018).

Stock Imagery: Growth, Characteristics, and Contrast with Professional Photojournalism

The stock photography industry has “become the visual backbone of advertising, branding, publishing, and journalism” (Aiello Citation2016, n.p.). Stock imagery is “a global business that manufactures, promotes and distributes photographic images primarily for use in marketing promotions, packaging design, corporate communications and advertising” (Frosh Citation2001, 627). Stock imagery first blossomed in the 1970s following the decline of mass-circulation picture magazines, such as Look and Life (Frosh Citation2001; Citation2003). The first commercially aimed stock agency, the Image Bank, was established in 1974. The Image Bank anticipated the needs of advertisers and hired technically talented photographers to produce high-quality images. The esthetic dimensional goal of this stock photography was to create “a recognizable visual aesthetic within the broader context of contemporary advertising imagery, an authoritative and replicable fusion of stylistic codes and preferred subjects, which would determine for photographers exactly ‘how’ the new, high-quality stock photographs should look” (Frosh Citation2001, 630).

These conventions led to the so-called generic stock image: “glossy, formulaic, multipurpose representation of consumer well-being and corporate achievement" (Frosh Citation2001, 30). Getty Images “pioneered electronic commerce and online image banks” in 1995 (Glückler and Panitz Citation2013, 3), and the industry continued to expand in the late 1990s and early 2000s with advancements in digital imagery and storage (Machin Citation2004, 3). By 2011, Gluckler and Panitz estimated the stock photography industry brought in $2.88 billion in global gross revenue (Glückler and Panitz Citation2013, 7). An August 2018 report by Research and Markets predicted the stock photography industry would generate a 5% compounded annual growth rate starting in 2018, leading to over $4 billion per year in revenues by 2023 (“Global stock images” Citation2018).

In recent years, stock photographers and stock photography buyers have pushed the stock photography library to evolve toward a style perceived to be more authentic. In the stock industry, there is “a tension between the increasing demand for commercial images to look distinctive, authentic, and diverse and the necessity to keep pre-produced imagery flexible and open-ended.” (Aiello and Woodhouse Citation2016, 353) In a February 2018 blog post for the stock photography agency Shutterstock, stock photographer Joshua Resnick said

I would say today there is much less emphasis on images having to be technically perfect … I think people are bored of sterile studio shots, no matter how technically perfect they might be. Smartphone cameras have been the main driving force in changing this mindset. (“7 photographers” Citation2018)

Because the traditional notion of stock photography can seem inauthentic to the viewer (Aiello Citation2016), some stock photographers like Resnick have deliberately adapted their image-making approach. Getty Images uses vague language in its default images searches. Rather than allow users to search for stock or journalistic imagery, it offers a menu of either “Creative” images, “Editorial” images or both (Getty Images Citationn.d.). For journalists, these conceptual and esthetic improvements in stock catalogs can be ethically worrisome. Images that appear more candid or truer to cultural norms are more likely to trick a viewer into believing that what is posed is actually authentic.

Media outlets might sometimes repurpose images made by staff photojournalists as “file photos”, but these images are still created under circumstances moored to a photojournalistic worldview and ethical schema. Additionally, these images are typically marked as “file photo” to clue the viewer into both the origin of the image (the media outlet) and the fact that this moment is not contemporaneous to the story. Even when stock images are marked as such, there is no clue to the viewer of the timeline or creative origin of the picture.

Recent professional anecdotes illustrate how stock photography can replace photojournalism in traditional news spaces. The Daily Hampshire Gazette is a regionally-owned newspaper with a circulation of approximately 15,000 copies per day headquartered in western Massachusetts. It employs three full-time staff photographers. On 6 November 2018 was Election Day and the print front page of the Gazette’s health section featured two stories about a contentious statewide ballot initiative concerning hospital staffing levels. Though a staff reporter interviewed local nurses, the two lead photographs were generic images purchased from iStock for $12 each. One photograph the Gazette published was called “Young Girl With Female Nurse in Intensive Care Unit” (“Young girl” Citation2014). That photo had been used to illustrate an article in Psychology Today (Saleh Citation2018) ten months earlier about the effect of hospital alarm bells on patients. The second stock photograph the Gazette used, “Closeup of Holding Hands”, had been paired eleven months earlier with a Washington Post article about dying at home versus dying in the hospital (MacPherson and Parikh Citation2017).

The norms and values that shape professional photojournalism conflict with many of the known practices of stock photographers and the characteristics of stock photography. Photojournalists working within a newsroom value the timeliness and relevance of photos specific to the story at hand, which is the opposite of the model stock photography agencies employ. Photojournalists often adapt photographic versions of journalistic values (Brennen Citation2010; Kobré Citation2011; Lowrey Citation2002), including objectivity and accuracy. Photojournalists are urged to visually depict what occurred at the scene, help the audience understand the story, and tell the story as completely as possible (NPPA Citation2017). Photojournalists have a long history of capturing drama and emotion and therefore attempting to portray to the viewers what the subject was actually feeling (Kobré Citation1999). Professionals also shun acts that would compromise the integrity of photographs, such as altering the scene of the image, posing photographs or digitally manipulating images (NPPA Citation2017). These ethical guidelines are formalized by the National Press Photographer’s Code of Ethics. Stock photographers have no institutional code of ethics nor formalized rules. Scholar Giorgia Aiello found that stock photographers often produce stock imagery as their secondary job, with a purely commercial goal of photographing “different combinations of people and saleable concepts as efficiently and economically as possible” (Citation2016). In some cases, stock photographers may approximate a candid method of image-making, as in the case of Joshua Resnick, but what makes stock image creation unique is the specific capitalistic and generalistic goal it serves, as opposed to the journalistic and story-specific and truth-telling goal of photojournalism.

Despite these differences, few researchers have investigated the implications of stock photography in the news. Aiello (Citation2016) notes that: “ … stock images are most often overlooked rather than looked at—both by ‘ordinary’ people in the contexts of their everyday lives and by scholars, who have rarely taken an interest in this industry and genre in its own right” (n.p.). This study takes an interest.

Summary and Research Questions

The literature review has traced the development of various conceptualizations of credibility. Following, the challenges facing photojournalism and the changing mix of images that appear in the news are discussed. This discussion highlights the need to address the gap in the literature—the existence of a photo credibility scale for images in a news context. Therefore, we ask

Research question 1: Can concepts identified in previous media credibility studies be applied to the development of a reliable scale specific to photographs that appear in the news?

The literature explains that stock photographs are used in the news, and the changing nature of photojournalism suggests that their use could increase. Therefore, the nature of stock photography has been explained and contrasted with the traditional values and norms of photojournalism to justify the potential for different credibility perceptions. We ask

Research Question 2: Does use of this scale indicate that viewers perceive a difference between stock photographs and staff-taken photographs?


Scale Development

The concept under study is the Photo Credibility Scale in Journalistic Contexts. Modeling and adapting the definition of message credibility defined by Appelman and Sundar (Citation2016), the definition is an individual’s assessment of the veracity of a photograph that appears in a news context.

The selection of scale items was guided by Carpenter (Citation2018), who states scholars should employ “(1) a literature review; (2) at least one type of qualitative research; (3) expert feedback; and (4) a pre-test when developing their scale dimensions and items” (34).

A thorough literature review about journalism credibility and photojournalism credibility was conducted, a condensed version of which is presented above. No distinction was made amongst measures of source, medium or message credibility. Instead, all dimensions of credibility found in the literature which could feasibly be applied to a photograph in the news were selected. This method was similar to that of Appelman and Sundar (Citation2016) who searched for all measures that “seemed plausible” in the context (64). When selecting statements, the practices of photojournalism were considered. An initial list of 20 statements were compiled. Following the guidance of Carpenter (Citation2018), the scale was discussed amongst the researchers and with four individuals who have a background in both photojournalism professionalism and research. During this stage, possible items were consolidated, several adjustments were made to the wording to increase validity. After several iterations, the list was narrowed down to nine dimensions. The wording of the items within each dimension was altered when necessary to be applicable photographs in the news. Carpenter states, “The quality of a measure rests on the judgment of the researcher, which includes the selection of dimensions and wording of items to be included on the scale” (31–32). See to ascertain from where in the literature each statement was drawn. The dimensions are Authority, Accuracy, Coverage, Completeness, Currency, Journalism Professionalism, Objectivity, Trust and Photojournalism Professionalism. Each dimension was also measured using a negatively worded statement, creating 18 statements. See .

Table 1. Literature statements and adaptations.

Table 2. Difference between Photo Credibility in Journalistic Contexts of staff photographs and stock photographs.

The survey was then sent to 10 graduate students, followed by five researchers and 10 members similar to the sample. Finally, 10 members from the actual sample were surveyed prior to conducting the full study. Each time, feedback about wording and clarity was provided and small adjustments were made.

Stimulus Materials

The staff photojournalistic stimulus images were chosen from winners of the Monthly Clip Contest of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). In this way, the photojournalistic quality of the images had already been validated. Following, hundreds of stock images were considered to match the situation of the staff images. Gender, ethnicity, the narrative, the direction of the gaze of the subjects and compositional placement were matched as closely as possible. The stock images were also specifically chosen so that their visual style echoed the “glossy, formulaic, multipurpose” expression of stereotypical stock photography (Frosh Citation2001, 30). This served the goal of presenting an esthetic contrast between a “typical” stock photo and a “typical” photojournalistic image. Five pairs of images were initially proposed: a car accident, a graduation ceremony, a soldier greeting a family member after deployment, an environmental portrait and a feature picture of a doctor and a child. After pretesting amongst the researchers and four professional individuals, the portrait and the doctor scene were eliminated as they were judged as having avoidable interfering variables that could affect perception, leaving three pairs.

Both staff and stock images were presented under a “Local News” headline, with the same block of unreadable, blurry, two-column text placed to the right of each image in order to establish a journalistic context surrounding the image. Each pair of images had the same short, descriptive caption about the content of the image, which did not include proper names or locations. These captions were written as neutrally as possible to present only a declarative description of the central act of the photograph. See Appendices 1–3 for each of the pairs of photos used and their presentation.


A sample size of 400 United States citizens was chosen with the guidance of Aleamoni (Citation1976) and purchased from Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mturk). By the end of the study, given the random nature of the sampling, there were 402 responses, of which 198 had been randomly assigned to the staff photographer condition and 204 to the stock photographer condition. The ages of respondents ranged from 18 to 93, with a mean age of 37 years. 224 (56%) respondents were male, 175 (46%) were female, two stated “other”, and one person did not respond. Most respondents (174; 44%) were college graduates, followed by those who have completed some college (83; 21%) and those who are high-school graduates (54; 13%). Finally, fewer than 1% of respondents stated they had received vocational training or reported having completed some postgraduate work, and 49 (12%) had a post-graduate degree.

Data Collection

Following institutional ethics approval, data were collected through an online between-subjects post-test single factor quasi-experiment disseminated by MTurk in October 2018. Respondents did not know whether they were seeing a stock image or a photojournalistic image. After viewing each photograph in the assigned set, they responded to the statements on the scale on a 5-point likert scale. Upon completing the survey, each respondent was paid $3.67 through Mturk.

Analysis. To calculate the photo credibility in journalistic contexts construct, the mean responses to the individual statements were summed and then divided by the total number of statements. Similarly, responses to each statement pertaining to each dimension were averaged. The purpose of the reverse-coded statement was not to create a reliable measure of a certain concept, but to reduce response fatigue. The 18 items in the scale were subjected to Cronbach’s alpha testing to assess overall scale reliability. To measure whether there were significant differences in credibility perceptions between staff-taken photographs and stock photographs, independent samples t-tests were used.


Throughout the results, means are noted parenthetically. Results of the t-tests, standard deviations, significance and effect sizes can be found in .

Research Question 1 asked: Can concepts identified in previous media credibility studies be applied to the development of a reliable scale specific to photographs that appear in the news? The answer to this question is yes. The 18 items in the scale were subjected to Cronbach’s alpha testing, and the reliability indicators were high (George and Mallery Citation2003). The alpha score for the overall photo credibility scale showed high consistency:

  • Staff photographs: .899

  • Stock photographs: .895

The answer to research question 2, “Do viewers rate the credibility of staff-taken photographs differently than stock photographs” is also a resounding yes. Specifically, the results of the independent-samples t-test show that staff-taken photographs are rated significantly more credible (3.62) on the Photo Credibility in Journalistic Contexts construct than stock photographs (3.32).

Examining the individual concepts that comprise the Photo Credibility in Journalistic Contexts construct provides more nuanced results. There were statistically significant differences between perceptions of the credibility of staff-taken photographs and stock photographs for each measure except Completeness, where no significance was found. Further, for every measure—with the notable exception of Journalism Professionalism, where stock photos were rated more highly (3.28) than staff-taken photos (2.92)—staff-taken photographs were rated as significantly more credible than stock photographs. The concepts of Photojournalism Professionalism, Trust and Accuracy were the concepts that were measured significantly higher on staff-taken photographs than on stock photographs to the greatest degree, with mean differences of .78, .66 and .62, respectively. These concepts, too, were those that were rated most highly for professional, staff photographs, with respective mean credibility scores of 4.12, 4.20 and 4.22.

Slightly more subtle, but significant, differences are found for the concepts of Currency, Objectivity, Authority and Coverage. Respondents rated the perceived Currency of the images—a concept that measures the specificity of that particular photo to the particular situation—significantly greater on staff-taken photos (3.53) than stock photos (3.17). Similarly, Objectivity is rated significantly higher on staff-taken photos (2.91) than stock photos (2.56). Authority, which is the degree to which the photograph presents meaningful information about a subject (Gayle et al. Citation2018) was rated greater on staff photos (3.50) than stock images (3.26). And finally, coverage, which measures the ability of a photograph to help the viewer understand and learn something about the subject, was also perceived as higher on the staff photos (3.82) than on the stock photos (3.62).


The primary purpose of this article was the development of a reliable and multidimensional scale for the assessment of the credibility perceptions of different kinds of images that appear in the news: Photo Credibility in Journalistic Contexts. In previous research, there is no standardized, reliable scale for the measurement of photo credibility in journalistic contexts. Scholars interested in such investigations have had to rely on statement items and scales that have been traditionally applied to news sources or media types and do not address the nuances and specific attributes of news photography. While this standard approach has been useful, it fails to capture the many unique principles of photojournalism. Issues of staging, capturing true emotion, the specificity of a photo for a certain news story and homing in on certain aspects, visually, as opposed to capturing the whole visual story, are all specific news photo credibility. In addition, statements that apply generally to photographs needed to be re-worded as to relate to photos. Using scale items from broad credibility measures and adapting them to the context of news imagery based on the literature and expert contribution has resulted in a reliable scale of Photo Credibility in Journalistic Contexts. Validity of the scale was gained by expert pretesting and expert consultation in development. This study was the first to develop a credibility scale specific to the characteristics of news photos. The measure is highly relevant in the contemporary visual news atmosphere and can be used to measure image credibility perceptions in future studies about the myriad other types of images that are replacing staff images; for example, wire images, file photos and citizen-shot photos. Given the decrease in staff photographers in news organizations across the country (Anderson Citation2013; Hadland, Lambert, and Campbell Citation2016; Mortensen & Gade, Citation2018; Winslow Citation2013), the implications of these layoffs are a relevant area of study. Still, audience perception studies of the evolving visual news composition remain scarce, perhaps in part because of a lack of measures. Credibility perceptions of photographs are one direction in which to begin this area of study. The nine concepts germane to news photography within the scale allow for nuanced interpretations in comparisons. The authors aim for the scale to continue to be applied to other news-photo contexts and continue to cement its reliability and validity.

Indeed, a second and important purpose of this study was to use the scale to measure credibility perceptions of two certain types of images: staff photographs and stock photographs alongside news stories. This study was the first to do so. Largely, the results suggest that people perceive the credibility of stock images as significantly lower than those taken by staff photographers. Staff photojournalists were rated particularly high, and higher than stock images, in the areas of photojournalism professionalism, trust and accuracy, an encouraging result in a time of public skepticism about journalism in general and a nod to the continued relevance or and importance of staffed photojournalists. Viewers in this study thought that photojournalists excel at capturing what people are genuinely feeling and have faith that staff photojournalists do not pose their photographs when compared to stock images. Further, participants trust the integrity of the image itself and the fact that the image portrayed the event just as it was in reality. These positive results suggest that the journalism and photojournalism values that staff photographers profess to implement shine through in their imagery (Kobré Citation2011; NPPA, 2018). Furthermore, the participants recognize and appreciate these photojournalistic values. As Aiello (Citation2016) has suggested, stock photographs seem to appear inauthentic to viewers.

Staff photographers, threatened as their professional status has been in recent years (Aiello Citation2016; Anderson Citation2013; Greenwood and Thomas Citation2015; Grieco Citation2018; Hadland, Lambert, and Campbell Citation2016; Klein-Avraham and Reich Citation2016; Schiller Citation2013) may gain insight into how they may stand out in the modern marketplace of images where not only are there so many who can take photographs but where there also exist those who spread misinformation and fake news. In other words, this finding suggests how photojournalists can make themselves stand out as credible news providers and that this would be something that the audience appreciates.

Upon examination of the concepts within the construct of photo credibility, it is apparent that nuances exist. These nuances offer insight into perceptions of these perceived credibility differences, but also may offer room for further future refinement and validation of the scale. For example, the perceived “completeness” of the photograph was not different between each type of photograph. Completeness was measured by perceptions of whether the image told the whole story of the event or missed the point entirely. For each measure, the mean ratings were just over 3.5, a relatively high rating. This similar rating for a stock versus staff photos may be a result of the fact that in order to have equal comparisons, images were specifically selected to show a similar frame and lens distance more than actual overall perceptions. Journalists are increasingly reliant on feedback from the audience in order to generate story ideas; at the same time, audience members continue to be exposed to and expectant of news content that is customized for them. Taken together with the decline of the traditional news gatekeepers and the rise of grassroots perspectives of news value, perhaps this can explain the lack of significant results for the completeness construct in this study.

Interestingly, the dimension of Journalism Professionalism was rated more highly on stock photographs than on staff photographs. The measures for journalism professionalism were designed to perceive whether it looked like the photographer was experienced. Indeed, stock photographers may be extremely experienced, professional photographers. Therefore, the fact that the responses to the statements about whether a skilled photographer took the photo or whether “anybody could take the photo” yielded higher results on stock images is not necessarily surprising. In fact, stock photographs may be more heavily curated, staged and perfectly-lit, even though this ultra-polished look is not universally adopted among stock photographers (“7 photographers” Citation2018). These are photography skills that may be perceived by survey respondents as more “professional”.Yet the esthetic clues to professionalism could themselves be in flux. For example, scholars like Fred Ritchin argue that “the very subjectivity of [visual] non-professionals … can be reassuring … These images constitute, to a certain extent, a common, diaristic dialect based on showing and sharing with cellphones” (Ritchin Citation2013). But the fact that photojournalists and stock photographers might adopt less formal esthetic styles, such as using cell phones to make images, does not change the foundational difference in why these images are being produced Survey participants did not think that it is difficult to take a polished photo.

The most obvious, but unavoidable, shortcoming of this study is that it is not a true experiment, but a quasi-experiment. Examinations of visuals often involve examinations of subtle nuances. These studies are messier and less clear-cut than many other content perception studies. Singling out a variable for examination in a photo in this particular case would not yield useful results, for they are the perceptions of nuanced differences between a stock photograph and staff-taken photograph, in the case of this study, that we were interested in. Specifically, we were interested in whether the fact that an image was staged by an actor for a number of contexts was perceived by audiences and affected their credibility perceptions. Therefore, the quasi-experimental method was appropriate.

The results of this study are positive for both the future of photo credibility studies and for the profession of photojournalism. Given its effectiveness, future studies should continue to make use of, update and validate the Photo Credibility in Journalistic Contexts scale to measure perceptions of other non-staff images, continuing the study of the implications of the changing nature of visual news. How visual credibility is perceived in global media markets beyond the United States is another potentially fruitful avenue of research.

This specific study found that respondents found images made by staff photojournalists more credible than stock imagery and were savvy enough to notice and react to the generic nature of stock photography, however, slick the production values of those images are. The findings of this study fortify professional cries for the ongoing necessity of quality photojournalism, which is an affirming data point for the industry during a time of repeated dire news in photojournalism.

Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Additional information


The author(s) reported there is no funding associated with the work featured in this article.


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Appendix 1: Pair 1

Above: Staff image

Appendix 2: Pair 2

Appendix 3: Pair 3

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