Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy,
University of South Florida
Paul Elliott, Professor of Communications,
California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

A Year in Review:
Looking Back in Order to Look Forward

(c) 2003

With the December issue of this column (our 39th), we start an annual tradition of looking back over the columns and the ethical issues we wrote about during the past year. We also want to mention some situations that we didn't cover in the columns.

What kind of a professional/person are you? Would you help a rival photojournalist if she needed a digital card, a new battery, or a better viewing location? If you offer help to another without hesitation, you are probably in the minority. Nevertheless, unsolicited actions that directly alleviate those trials are especially worthy of praise given these highly competitive times.

What exactly is the nature of news? Do photojournalists report news for their immediate readers and viewers or for a wider community? What to call news should be made based on what is most likely to be of use in a self-governing society. The profession can only improve in quality and stature if journalists on the scene and back in the shop are mindful of those they see in their viewfinders and those they seldom see, their readers, viewers, and even those who never see their product.

What is the purpose of an ethics code? Frequent analyses of Codes keep them from becoming meaningless documents pinned to a newsroom's bulletin board. If the NPPA Code, in its current articulation, is not a working part of photojournalists' equipment, this is the time for the leadership to be advised.

Which do you value more: your work or your relationships? The morally mature person measures his success by how well he has nurtured those in his sphere, including his professional and personal contacts, as well as him or herself. Many modern professional men and women have integrated these two perspectives on the job as well as at home and have been able to reconcile love and a career. (NOTE: Doug Thompson, a subject of the April column, has struggled for the past five months with extensive physical therapy and career set-backs after he was involved in a serious automobile accident. In an NPPA listserv e-mail, he gave the members an update and concluded with:

"I don't post this as a whine but as a wake-up call to all shooters, especially free-lancers. Our business is a fragile one, built on relationships that depend on mutual benefit and our value will always be judged on our most recent work. Listen to those who say you need more in your life than work. When work is all you've got, you have nothing when the work goes away.")

How assertive should photojournalists be with reporters? Photojournalists should not let themselves be used as mere chauffeurs or simple button-pushers for reporters. Furthermore, when a photojournalist suspects a reporter of an obvious conflict of interest, the photographer should be able to object.

Does your newsroom culture lead to ethical violations? Fabricating a photograph by a photojournalist far away from home may lead to questions about professional pressures. This is the time for news managers to recognize that they both have the power and the responsibility to put the value of aesthetic excellence back were it belongs, as important, but secondary to the value of ethical journalism. Each publisher and editor can work to create a newsroom culture in which ethical journalism is prized over aesthetic excellence.

Should you point your camera where others aren't looking? Governments are increasingly sophisticated in shaping news coverage. The inappropriate manipulation of media that horrified citizens during the McCarthy era of the mid-20th Century has been neutralized into the now accepted notion of "spin" and media events. Visual messages that show public officials obstructing access to legitimate news and visual messages that illustrate journalistic willingness to look where officials are not pointing provide the best defenses. Enough examples might even provoke citizen outrage.

Why are picture manipulations so prevalent a topic for this column? Journalists often manipulate subjects and images to present the news; and they do so ethically--in a way that enhances journalistic credibility despite an ever-growing technically sophisticated public. However, having reasons for manipulating is not the same as having moral justifications for doing so. For example, it is not enough to label a manipulated image an "illustration" and then hope that readers and viewers will understand the category as different from news. Presenting a visual reality and simultaneously contradicting that purported reality with text that claims otherwise causes dissonance for the viewer. In journalism, it is important that the audience be able to believe what they see and what they read. Period. This basic journalism tenet is truth despite any excuses for manipulation--aesthetic, economic, or political.

When does a kiss become a kiss-up? Feature writers for print and screen media necessarily must report on popular culture phenomena, but traditional news pages and segments should avoid making too big a fuss. The more that editors and producers confuse popular culture with news, the less real news will get covered.

There were also issues introduced by members of the NPPA listserv this past year that we unfortunately didn't get an opportunity to write about:

We know there will always be work for each one of us when the issues raised by professionals in the field outnumber the ones singled out by the academics. Somewhat gratifying is that there is a fair amount of overlap between the two lists. Questions regarding advertising department influence over assignments, manipulation (including stage managing and picture element alterations), conflict of interests, governmental censorship, newsroom culture, photojournalistic conventions, victims of violence and their right to privacy are important issues that will probably always be with us. A pessimist might conclude with "there is no point in discussing these concerns--nothing will change." We prefer another approach: if positive change is desired in our profession, it can only occur through one thoughtful professional at a time.

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