Photojournalism ethics needs a reexamination | Poynter.: http://t.co/tZeiIzqvFr
— Kenneth F. Irby (@irbyman) March 6, 2015
I agree with Kenny Irby’s call for photojournalism organizations to re-examine and update their codes of ethics.
Prompted by a scandal in the World Press Photo awards, Kenny called last week on WPPh and the National Press Photographers Association to “re-examine photojournalism ethics amid recent changes in digital photographic imaging and social media sharing.”
Kenny’s a veteran photojournalist and Poynter’s senior faculty for visual journalism and diversity. He has much more expertise in this topic than I do. I’m not a photojournalist, just a writer who has on occasion shot mostly mediocre photos and a journalist who appreciates the power of photography. I can’t do much more with digital editing tools than crop. I’m not going to have all the solutions to photojournalism’s ethical challenges. But I’ve called for updating of other ethics codes, and I’ll support Kenny’s call for updating photojournalism’s ethical guidance.
The NPPA Code of Ethics does not say when it was adopted or last updated, but it’s clearly a product of the digital age, referring to videos and image manipulation, though it doesn’t mention social media. It’s an excellent ethics code that covers a lot of ground in not many words, though I think it could and should offer more specific guidance in both areas.
Correction: The paragraph above originally had a link to what I said was the World Press Photo Code of Conduct, but it was for a different organization. WPPh does not have a code but last year published a 21-page research project by David Campbell, The Integrity of the Image. Campbell said in his introduction:
The research was not designed to impose or recommend standards that organizations should adopt, rather to record the standards that organizations might hold or practice.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist have many general principles that apply to photojournalism as well as to reporting, editing and producing. But neither code includes any form of the words photography, pictures, images or video. Only this passage from the SPJ Code applies specifically (sort of) to photojournalism:
Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.
Clearly, photojournalism needs clearer, undated guidance on ethics.
I hope that editors and reporters are included in discussions of updating photojournalism ethics. And if a new code is developed, I hope it is circulated and followed throughout journalism, because this issue extends beyond photojournalism. In addition to the fact that reporters take many photos today, reporters and editors are involved in many other photo decisions, such as whether and how to obtain and use photos from social media. Reporters and editors often write, edit or assist in writing cutlines, which present ethical issues as well. Update: I recommend Campbell’s report to reporters, editors and professors whose understanding of digital photography is not complete (that would include me). For instance, I’ll bet I’m not the only non-photojournalist who didn’t understand that there isn’t truly an “original image” in digital photography. (After reading his report, I did some more editing on the community-photos section below.)
Photos from social media raise issues of copyright and verification. On the latter matter, I call your attention to the excellent advice in the Verification Handbook (to which I was a contributor). Trushar Barot of the BBC wrote about verification of images and Malachy Browne of Reported.ly wrote about verification of videos. Both chapters are excellent.
I also hope any re-examination of photojournalism ethics includes guidance for shooting and editing video, perhaps collaborating with the Radio Television Digital News Association, which is updating its ethics code.
I’ll contribute a little to this discussion by reposting and updating a handout we used in a series of ethics seminars I developed and led for the American Press Institute from 2005 to 2010. My original version of the handout below was published on the No Train, No Gain website.
I don’t think this covers all the issues that a photojournalism ethics code should. But I have often argued that good ethics grow more from good conversations about ethics than from ethics codes. So here’s my contribution to this conversation:
Photographs connect with readers in an emotional way that stories cannot. A story can describe how a person died and that is disturbing but, even if a story is unusually graphic, the response is not as strong as to a photo that tells the same story. Publish a photograph of that same person at or after the moment of death and readers or viewers will be outraged. Photography has a power that leaves parents worried how they will explain the pictures to children who play video games that depict graphic violence.
Decisions on whether to publish disturbing images should be made after the photograph is shot. Presuming access doesn’t involve improper behavior such as trespassing or crossing police lines, photographers should shoot a variety of pictures in situations that present disturbing images, then participate with their editors in the decisions about which images to publish.
Photojournalists often post photographs to social media or to a website from the field, but you should make exceptions for disturbing images, particularly those that depict violence, injury or death. Send those instead to an editor with your recommendation on whether and how to publish the photo. Publication of disturbing images should be a collaborative decision, and even in breaking news situations, you should take the time to involve other people and discuss arguments for and against publication.
In especially sensitive situations, you might want to find a way to seek readers’ views in advance of publication. Perhaps the editor could enlist a group of volunteer readers to give quick feedback by e-mail on sensitive photos. You might find a way to solicit reader guidance online. Maybe you would find it helpful to consult with some colleagues in another department who may not share your news values and might more closely reflect public sensibilities.
The point is not to identify any situation where a photo might offend readers and avoid publishing all of those photos. But you should listen to readers’ objections and decide whether the news value of this particular photograph is so powerful that it overrides those concerns. If you find that you always override reader objections or always cave in to them, you may have your decision-making process out of balance.
The news value threshold must be high for a newspaper to publish a photograph of a dead or dying person, especially if the person is recognizable in the photograph. Some questions to consider:
- Is this death or the event that caused it truly big news or are you making it bigger simply because you had a photographer present?
- Do other photographs show as effectively (or nearly as effectively) the power of the news event?
- How public was the death or the event that caused it?
- Do your standards vary for photographs of local people and for Americans in distant locations?
- Do your standards vary for Americans and for victims of disasters or wars in other countries?
- How would you feel if the subject of the photo were someone in your family?
Grief similarly provides compelling photographs that may capture the tragic nature of a news event. But sometimes a photograph of grief feels to readers like an intrusion.
In a 2005 Poynter post about an APME survey of how readers and journalists viewed photographs, Ryan Pitts of the Spokesman-Review wrote, “They felt as if they were intruding on a sacred moment.” The questions journalists should weigh about images of grieving people are similar to those for images of dead and dying people. Other considerations in grief situations might be whether the family granted you access to a private gathering, whether the family received the grim news in a public setting and how intrusive your photographer was in taking the picture.
How (if at all) do considerations change when the subject of a disturbing photograph is a child? Or a public figure? Or an undocumented immigrant? Or a soldier (U.S., allied or enemy)? Or a hostage? Or a criminal or terrorist? What if a photograph depicts illegal or dangerous activity?
One solution for publishing disturbing images would be to publish them on the web. The link to the photograph could warn of the disturbing content, so that you are providing the photograph to readers who want to see the true appalling or tragic nature of the news event. That’s not as intrusive as running images on the front page of a newspaper, the home page of the website or leading the evening newscast. You might publish the images in a photo gallery, with the first image being a text disclaimer warning of the disturbing images to come.
Sometimes reader objections to disturbing newspaper images mention the shock of seeing that picture over breakfast or concern about having to explain it to children who saw it in the newspaper. The web allows a way for editors to warn of the disturbing nature and gain reader assent before allowing access.
But you don’t have control of how people use social media to share your digitally published photos, so digital publishing could become more disturbing than publication in the newspaper. If someone shares your photo on social media, that person’s offended followers might be more angry at you for publishing than at their friend for sharing.
Try to anticipate when a photograph might offend readers. You should not avoid every possible offense, but you should consider possible offenses and consider how you would justify the photograph to an angry reader. When you decide to publish a disturbing photograph, you might consider an editor’s note or blog post explaining why you decided to publish this picture. Sometimes readers who find a photograph offensive will be more understanding of the decision if they know your reasoning and know that you understood the offensive nature of the photograph and considered other views.
When I was editor of the Minot Daily News in the early 1990s, before newspaper websites, a young man in our coverage area lost his arms in a farm accident, and they were surgically reattached in the Twin Cities. The stringer who covered the hospital press conference sent us a photo the hospital provided of the arms before they were reattached. The photo was grotesque and I won’t try to describe it here. I could not justify publishing it in the newspaper, but it gave me a deeper appreciation for the medical miracle we were reporting on. Looking at the mess of those severed arms, I could not imagine how you could possibly reattach them.
I decided not to publish the photo, but I wrote a column about it, inviting readers who wanted to see the photo to come to my office, take a look and tell me whether we made the right call. Maybe a dozen or so did, and they all agreed with me: They were glad they had seen the photo and it gave them deeper appreciation for the surgeons’ skill, but they thought I made the right call not to publish it.
I might do something different now, with digital options. But I won’t say what I would do, because that would be a hypothetical decision and those are much easier than real ones.
By the way, I chose not to publish the young man’s name here. An update story a few years ago described how difficult the continuing attention is, and I’d rather not add to that attention just to use him as an example in a discussion of journalism ethics. The surgeons did succeed in attaching his arms, but he has never regained full use of them.
Photographs have always been imperfect depictions of scenes. The best photos are flat, narrow representations of an instant in a wide, three-dimensional world in motion. Videos capture the motion and sound and more than an instant, but they’re still just a narrow view of that wide world, often seconds or minutes of an event or interview that may have lasted hours, shown on a flat screen. Black-and-white photographs never depicted the world accurately. And, as a famous dress recently illustrated, color photos don’t look the same to everyone.
While the human eye can adjust to degrees of darkness and light, many scenes require the photographer to manipulate the image at the instant the shutter opens by supplying a flash of light, creating shadows that were not originally there. In darkroom days, photographers further adjusted the lighting of their prints through the techniques of burning and dodging.
Beyond this lighting manipulation, for years newspaper artists used a paintbrush to provide contrast that the camera did not, particularly around a person’s hair.
The goal in most of this alteration usually was not to manipulate the photograph to depict something inaccurate, but to provide an image that matched what a witness to that scene saw.
Photo editors also cropped to provide a more realistic or dramatic shot. In the real 3-D scene, that flagpole wasn’t really growing out of the person’s head, so the photo editor would crop tight, right at the edge of the hair.
With digital editing tools, the ability to manipulate digital photographs is so great that news organizations that want to maintain credibility must seriously consider their standards for photo manipulation.
“As we learned last week, digital is not film, it is data — and it requires a new and clear set of rules,” Michele McNally of the New York Times, jury chairwoman for the WPP contest said in the Times’ Lens blog.
A good ethical standard to follow is that it is still OK to adjust the lighting of a photograph to make it more accurately depict the actual scene. But any manipulation that alters the actual content of a photograph makes that picture a photo illustration and it must be labeled accordingly.
It’s OK to crop tight as long as the resulting image isn’t deceiving. If you’re cropping out something that has no relation to the action in the picture, that’s a good crop. If you crop out something that relates to the action in the photograph, consider whether you should crop differently, explain in cutlines what’s missing (if, for instance, the person in the photograph is looking or pointing at what you cut) or supplement this photograph with others that tell the fuller story. Of course, every photograph, even if you use the full image that the photojournalist shot, is a cropped image from a 360-degree view at that scene. So ethical cropping just continues the photojournalist’s process of choosing a scene that captures or illustrates the story.
Digital editing is not the only way of manipulating photographs. More common is the staging of pictures. Many, if not most, mug shots used by newspapers are obviously posed. Same with the group photos that are common in some small-town newspapers and with environmental portraits that illustrate many feature stories. You don’t need to identify these obviously posed pictures as posed.
However, when you miss a news event and stage a photo later, it would be misleading to represent that as a candid photograph. “Sheriff Taylor shows the news media equipment seized from a meth lab …” is more accurate than “Sheriff Taylor examines equipment seized …” Avoid staged photos when possible, but identify them as staged if you must use them.
Moving around debris at a disaster scene, adding anything to a news scene or directing activity at a news scene are shaky or outright dishonest actions that should be avoided entirely or at least disclosed. Watch out for partisans or other people at a scene who manipulate the scene or stage action for the benefit of cameras.
A little bit of photojournalism ethics history: When I worked in 1997 on a story about Buddy Bunker’s famous “Homecoming” picture, I heard occasional rumors or speculation that the picture was staged. Because Buddy and the people in the photograph were all dead, I couldn’t really confirm or debunk the rumor. The reporter who accompanied Bunker said it was spontaneous, but his memory was fuzzy, so I didn’t quote him, but said it looked genuine based on other photos taken shortly afterward (I had all the negatives of Bunker’s photos that day).
Eleven years later, when a home movie of the Homecoming surfaced, Bunker was completely vindicated of staging. The movie clearly showed him and Cowan racing along the tracks with the soldier’s family to greet him. The soldier’s sister-in-law was shooting the movie from behind the journalists and you can see them firing away with their huge Speed Graphic cameras as the homecoming hero hugged his daughter.
News does not entitle photographers to trespass or cross police lines. Some authorities who have good relations with the local media may allow access. If authorities are too restrictive, photographers can negotiate for better access at the scene or editors can negotiate between incidents for better guidelines controlling scenes of accidents, disasters, crimes and other emergencies. Maybe a press association or freedom of information council needs to fight in court or a legislature to ensure better access.
Community photo issues
I believe the best way to generate visual content is to hire professional visual journalists for your staff, pay them well, expect them to be versatile in producing still photographs, videos and interactive projects and hold them to high standards. But even if you do that, you need to seek photos and videos from the community and curate photos and videos people are sharing on social media. And those people won’t necessarily share your standards. You need to learn how accurate their photos are, whether they have rights to them and how they might have manipulated them.
Again, I don’t have all the answers here, but I’ll contribute to the conversation:
- I know I’m repeating myself, but I think verification tips bear repeating. Check out the tips verification of images and videos in the Verification Handbook.
- Ask people who submit photos to you (or whose photos you curate from social media and blogs) whether they took the pictures. They might be submitting or posting photos that they didn’t take. Learn who owns rights to the photo (usually the photographer) and get his or her permission to use it (that’s why I don’t have many photos with this post; mine are mediocre, as I said at the outset, and I didn’t have time to track down photos and get the rights). Copyright is a matter of law, but even if you have permission to use the photo, good ethics should require you credit it correctly.
- Identify people in the photograph. And spell their names correctly. The person who shot the photo may not have gotten IDs as diligently as a photojournalist would. So you need to do that, even if it takes some reporting.
- Understand the circumstances of the photo. Context is part of photojournalism ethics and if you didn’t shoot the picture, you don’t know the context. So ask. Learn whether it was staged. Ask who else was present, so you can learn who else might enhance your understanding of context.
- Learn how the photo was edited. Journalists aren’t the only people who know how to use Photoshop. But some amateurs or professionals who aren’t journalists might see digital editing as a matter of fun or flattery, not ethics. Learn whether and how they have edited the photo and ask if you can
use the original fileexamine all versions of the photo.
- Watch for social-media filters. Part of the fun of Instagram is the use of filters that give special effects. But some of them also alter the photo. If you’re using a photo from social media, disclose whether a filter has been used. But it’s best, unless the filter itself is newsworthy, to get the
originalphoto file that was uploaded to social media if you can.
What are your views on photojournalism ethics?
I welcome you to share your thoughts in the comments on this post. I’m sure I’ve missed important points or issues. Others I have addressed more as an editor, reporter or professor (all of which I’ve been) than as a photojournalist (which I’ve never been full-time).
If you’d like to write a guest post on photojournalism ethics or a particular issue such as photo manipulation or use of photos from social media, email me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. Or perhaps you’ve already written (or read) a post addressing photojournalism ethics that I should add to the list below (most are several years old, from when I developed the handout for API).
I will email several photojournalists I respect inviting them to respond in one of the ways mentioned above, in hopes of bringing more expertise to the discussion than I can from my own meager experience.
Other helpful resources
Update: Thanks to David Indeje for sharing this discussion of photojournalism ethics.
Update: Thanks to David Campbell for sending along links to his posts on Photo manipulation and verification and Why does manipulation matter? He also sent a link to the International Federation of Journalists’ Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists, which expresses several important broad principles but makes only one specific reference to photojournalism.
Debating the Rules and Ethics of Digital Photojournalism, by the New York Times
Processing the News: Retouching in Photojournalism, by Scott Alexander
Photos and Video and Sensational and Gory Material, both by Tom Kent, a draft document that’s part of the Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code project. (I’m working on the project, and we’ll be adding to all of the documents in the coming weeks. You might need to be signed into a Google account to read it; it’s a Google Drive doc.)
Best Practices for the Business of Independent Photojournalism, by the National Press Photographers Association
You Be the Editor by Roy Peter Clark
Crash photos: Are they really necessary? by Gregg McLachlan
Reuters discussion News Photography and Photoshop
Displaying Death with Dignity by Kenny Irby