Photojournalism ethics

By Carolynne Burkholder

Pictures are worth 1,000 words – in the newspaper business that equals about 25 inches of print. Images are one of the most powerful forms of communication, especially in journalism. One image or sound can summarize an event or person or motivate a nation; one image can upset people more than endless pages of print on the subject. Kenneth F. Irby from the Poynter Institute describes photojournalism as “the craft of employing photographic storytelling to document life: it is universal and transcends cultural and language bounds.”

In the early days of newspaper journalism the photojournalist’s role was relatively straightforward. Armed with a camera he captured a moment in time – a reality. Back at the newsroom he spent hours in the darkroom mixing chemicals and perfecting his art. The photojournalist emerged with a snippet of reality, ready to show the truth to the public. The development of news photography in the 19th century supported claims by newspapers that they reported events as they happened, objectively.

Today, the ethics of photojournalism goes far beyond the ethics of the newspaper photo. It includes the millions of news-related images that appear on our televisions, cell phones, computer screens and other multi-media devices. We are an image-saturated world.

With these advances photojournalism has become more complicated technologically and ethically. The claim that photographs and images simply “mirror” events is no longer plausible. Moreover, photojournalists face tough ethical decisions on what to shoot, what to use, and if and when images can be altered.

In newsrooms, digital technology has all but eliminated the cumbersome process of film developing. Digital images are easily transmitted, raising the demand for images. With fresh demand comes increasing competition for the best, most dramatic photo.

Ethical Issues in Photojournalism

Among the main issues of photojournalism — in newspapers, on TV, or on the Internet — are:

1. Manipulation of digital images

Software such as Adobe PhotoShop and its imitators has created a new age of photography. With the click of a mouse you can create a new ‘truth’ by changing, in an instant, the size, shape and color of the image and the distance between objects. Objects can be removed from the image, or inserted into the picture. For example, if you are a hockey photographer, you could add a puck to the scene of a goalmouth scramble — if the real puck was obscured by a player. If you are a travel photographer, you can reduce the distance of the pyramids in your image so they fit the cover page of your magazine.

Imagine this conversation between the photojournalist and his editor: “Blur her eyes a bit to give the illusion of tears – you know the public loves drama – and while you’re at it, cut out the fourth child, no one has to know about him, three children is enough to make a point.”

It’s the composite character of the digital age. Adobe touts its “groundbreaking creative tools [that] help you achieve extraordinary results.” Extraordinary, they may be, but they may be misused by journalists to alter the truth or to mislead the public.

In The Ethical Ramifications of Digitally Altered Photographs, David Shenk wrote, “Programs such as PhotoShop may be the single best emblem of the immense new – eminently abusable – power conferred on humanity: with little will and some patience, virtually anyone can do virtually anything to a photograph.”

Shenk wrote this article eight years ago. Since then the technology has improved and is more accessible. No computer is complete without a version of PhotoShop – be it real, imitation, or pirated.

2. Intrusion into privacy

The development of long-range lens and the demand for attention-grabbing photos combine to make privacy a major ethical issue. When is it legitimate to take pictures of people in private moments? Should photojournalists capture images of politicians, movie stars and other public figures in private spaces? Should photojournalists take shots of families in grief, or victims of tragedy? The public perception of the journalist, and of the news media in general, has suffered from unjustified intrusions into privacy. The ethical question is: When is intrusion justified?

3. Graphic or shocking images

How graphic should — or must — images be to tell the news story? If news outlets use graphic pictures of war, they are accused of exploiting the pain of others. If they avoid graphic photos, they are accused of “sanitizing” the conflict. What criteria should guide photo decisions — local or community standards? Newsworthiness? Dramatic impact? A commitment to tell the whole truth?

According to Al Tompkins from the Poynter Institute in the U.S., when deciding whether a photograph is too graphic for the paper, newsrooms should consider: “What is the real journalistic value of the photographs? What do they prove and why are they news? Do they dispel or affirm information the public had prior to seeing the images?” By looking at the photos in terms of what they add to the news, editors should be able to determine whether publication is appropriate.

Ethical guidelines

Ethical guidelines have begun to address the new problems facing photojournalists. Many editors and responsible news organizations refuse to publish altered photographs. Photos that have been digitally altered are now labeled montages or photo illustrations. The technology of photojournalism may have changed, but its truth-telling essence can still remain.

In Elements of Journalism, authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote that “the purpose of journalism is not defined by technology…for all that the face of journalism has changed, indeed, its purpose has remained remarkably constant.” For photojournalism, this means that journalists need to guide their decisions by the basic principles of journalism — truth-telling, serving the public interest, acting responsibly and being accountable.

Photojournalism Ethics Guidelines

From the Canadian Association of Journalists Ethics Guidelines:
• Photojournalists are responsible for the integrity of their images. We will not alter images so that they mislead the public.
• We will explain in the photo caption if a photograph has been staged.
• We will label altered images as photo illustrations.

From the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics:
“Journalists should . . . never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.”

For a code of ethics entirely on photojournalism, see the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics. Some clauses from this code:
• Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
• Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
• Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects.
• Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups.
• Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.
• Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
• While photographing subjects, do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
• Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
• Respect the integrity of the photographic moment.

Photojournalism resources:
Paul Lester. Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991).

Philip Patterson and Lee Wilkins: Media Ethics: Issues and Cases (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998). Including the following chapters:
Jim Godbold and Jannelle Hart: “Above the Fold: Balancing Newsworthy Photos with Community Standards”; Lou Hodges: “Taste in Photojournalism: A Question of Ethics or Aesthetics?”

Asa Briggs and Peter Burke, A Social History of the Media (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), esp. 164-170