A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana

Responsible Journalism is Accountable Journalism

NEWS ITEM from the Buffalo News, Saturday, June 23, 2001:
A Mass of Christian Burial for Joseph R. Traver of Buffalo, an award-winning photojournalist, will be offered at 11 a.m. Tuesday in St. Mary's Catholic Church, Hudson.

Traver, 48, committed suicide Tuesday (June 19, 2001), one week after police arrested him, following allegations of a sex crime made against him by a 15-year-old boy.

"Please remember me as the big guy with a smile and an open heart."
From Joe Traver's final letter to friends

We sum up two thousand years of Western moral philosophy in one sentence: Do your job and don't cause unjustified harm. The conundrum is that doing your job as a journalist sometimes requires causing harm. Determining ethical behavior, then, becomes complicated as the importance of a story or an image is weighed against the potential harm to those in the news and those affected by it-family, friends, readers, and viewers. Just when is causing harm justified and when is it not?

Sometimes harm is justified because it is simply unavoidable. Yet, rarely is the journalistic choice as stark as "Go with the problematic choice or don't." Choices that include consideration of how and when and why move journalistic decision-making beyond the false either/or dilemma to a continuum in which some choices are likely to produce more harm and others are likely to produce less. Did the kind and quantity of news coverage push Joe Traver over the edge? It certainly didn't add to his reasons for living.

Determining professional ethical behavior is often a study in knowing the difference between praiseworthy and blameworthy actions. A journalist should be praised if she exceeds the minimal requirements of a job without causing unjustified harm. Likewise, she has done something wrong if she falls below the expectations of her job, or if she causes harm that cannot be justified. However, most journalists and other professionals rarely reach the ideal of praiseworthy action or the low of blameworthy behaviors-they find themselves somewhere in the middle.

Aristotle, a fourth century BC philosopher, provides a concept that can assist present day journalists in their attempts to create praiseworthy coverage. To paraphrase Aristotle, the practitioner of practical wisdom is the one who chooses the right outcome, the right means to get there, in the right manner, and at the right time.

To find the ideal balance, photojournalists need to think first of the possible extremes in a given situation. During a funeral for example, one extreme action might be for a journalist to walk boldly up to the grieving family during the service, ask questions, use a motordrive and a flash or a camera with lights, and leave without a thought of adding to the family's discomfort. Such an action, although fulfilling the requirements of the job, might cause unjustified harm to those attending the funeral. The opposite extreme is the journalist who is so concerned for the family that she refuses to take any pictures or shoot any video. Such a journalist might even refuse to go to the site of the service. That journalist might find her job in jeopardy. Looking for an ideal balance means that a journalist finds the least obtrusive way, and thus least harmful way, of covering a sensitive news event. Letting the family know of your presence, use a long, telephoto lens, dressing appropriately, and taking only a few pictures from a public position can satisfy the role related responsibilities without causing more harm than necessary. You will probably not win any awards for your actions aside from a possibly grateful glance from one of those family members, but you won't be blameworthy either. But how do you know what to do?

Another way to think about the practitioner of practical wisdom is to review journalism principles that have stood the test of time. Ed Lambeth in his classic media ethics book, Committed Journalism, identified the principles that good journalists stand by: truth telling, justice, freedom, humaneness, and stewardship. Truth is necessary for ethical journalism. Without truth, a journalist has no credibility. The principle of justice relates to a reporter's responsibility to be fair. A story should be complete, relevant, honest, and straightforward. The freedom principle means that a journalist should be independent both politically and economically. A journalist should never compromise that independence by "the acceptance of gifts, free or reduced travel, outside employment, certain financial investments, political activity, participation in civic activity, or outside speaking engagements." Humaneness, as Lambeth writes, is a principle that requires "a journalist to give assistance to another in need." Finally, the principle of stewardship means that a good journalist doing well cares for "the rights of others, the rights of the public, and the moral health of his [sic] own occupation." Truth telling, justice, and freedom are principles covered by the NPPA Code of Ethics when it asserts that "pictures should report truthfully, honestly, and objectively. "The principle of humaneness is mentioned when photographers are asked to have "sympathy for our common humanity." Finally, the stewardship principle is invoked when photojournalists are reminded by the Code that their "chief thought shall be to . . . lift the level of human ideals and achievement higher than we found it."

This is why the suicide of a story subject, whether a stranger or a known colleague, raises the possibility of failure for the professionals who produced the news coverage.

If a person featured in a news story, photograph, or video suddenly proclaims that she will kill herself if it is ever published or aired, a journalist has the moral-but not legal-responsibility to make sure the story or picture is important enough to risk that extreme action. The journalist also has the responsibility to notify someone about the threat. Such are the dictates that follow from humaneness and stewardship. Suicides that happen after a story has been reported, but with no prior warning to the photographer, videographer, or reporter, should still make journalists consider how a story could have been covered differently. Just as journalists are happy to take credit for the good that comes from their reporting, they are accountable for the bad. Likewise, some stories are so sensitive and contain such emotionally charged and career-threatening information that a journalist must be sure that the story and images are accurate, fair, and the editing and positioning of them are done with an eye toward causing the least possible harm.

One extreme inappropriate choice in the coverage of Joe Traver's arrest might have been to report unsubstantiated accusations and biased images of the accused with a jacket over his head large on the front page. The other extreme inappropriate choice would have been to not report the story at all. One way to strike an ideal balance would have been to report the story without images on an inside page. Sometimes an image can make the difference between a story that a subject can live with, and one that the person cannot.

What makes the telling and retelling of the ethical issues surrounding the treatment and ultimate end to Joe Traver difficult is that he was one of us. Like a death in the family, Traver's tragedy is, in a sense, our tragedy. Messages on the NPPA listserv abound with praise for his helpfulness to others and his illustrious career. Many of us thought we knew Joe well. Many were shocked by the possibility that the actions alluded to by police officials and supposed victims might be true. Traver was generally well liked, an able NPPA president, and a gifted, award-winning photojournalist. For the record, Traver, in an open farewell letter to friends written a day before his suicide, denied any physical contact between himself and the boy who accused him, denied resisting arrest and injuring any police officer, and complained of what he considered unfair media coverage.

We are left with trying to find lessons that can be learned from this sad situation. Should the media avoid reporting details of arrests? This is the convention or the law in many democratic countries. Should members of the media expect softer or harder treatment from their brethren if charged with a crime? The former question assumes that all are equal under the media microscope, while the latter question smacks of favoritism. It is easy to answer the two questions with an unhesitating, "no." But such absolutism might lead to coverage that is, on occasion, sensational, unfair, inhumane, or inconsistent with the kind of profession that journalism should strive to be.

Journalists are the first to take credit for stories and pictures that provoke others to action against some social travesty. The tenement images of Jacob Riis, the child labor horrors documented by Lewis Hine, the fire escape tragedy by Stan Forman, and the effect of drugs on the lives of adults and children by Eugene Richards are examples of when photographers were praised for their social consciousness. Humanness was expressed by their selection of their topics and the images produced from them. However, journalists are more than willing to point their fingers at lying sources, incomplete documents, deadline pressures, competition, or the unpredictability of humankind-when coverage turns out to be inaccurate, biased, or unfair and someone dies because of it. Realistically, journalists can't expect to be praiseworthy for one without recognizing that they are also blameworthy and accountable for the other.

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