Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Director, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana
Paul Martin Lester, Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

Keeping the Code Alive: Analysis helps it stay relevant

Does the NPPA Code of Ethics provide guidance for today's photojournalists? Does it adequately describe what constitutes a good photojournalist working well? Is that what it is supposed to do, anyway?

Whether Codes of Ethics are appropriate for the journalism professions, protected by the First Amendment, has been a long and interesting debate. If government is prohibited from setting boundaries around a "free and unfettered press," why should professional associations and newsrooms strive to do just that? The most common answer is that self-regulation is the best defense against external regulation, and that self-regulation is the best preventative to actions by practitioners that might legitimately result in judicial protection for those harmed.

RTNDA, SPJ, and ASNE all have Codes of Ethics that state, in one form or another, the role-related responsibilities of journalists. NPPA is unusual in that members are required to endorse the Code of Ethics as part of their application for membership. NPPA is also unusual in that the Code is actionable. Members can be charged with ethics violations by other members and, upon finding that the charges are justified, the member "shall be expelled from the association."

So, while ethics codes should be of interest to every member of any professional association, it truly matters to NPPA members if the Code makes sense.

The NPPA Code of Ethics is as old as the association itself, and the wording "seems to be pretty close" to the original, according to NPPA Executive Director, Greg Garneau. An additional statement on digital manipulation, was incorporated into the by-laws in 1995.

Whether the Code meets the needs of working members will be the topic of a debate later this month at the 22nd Annual Northern Short Course. John Long, Past-President of NPPA and J. Ross Baughman, a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, who is now photo editor at The Washington Times, will conduct a debate and a straw poll of participants regarding the Code's underlying values and assumptions.

Where the debate might lead is anyone's guess, but it provides a good opportunity for members to consider how well the Code is doing its job.

First, the Code should be evaluated on the basis of how well it meets a legitimate purpose.

While cynics decry Codes of Ethics as nothing more than flowery window dressing or defensive statements to protect practitioners, well-written Codes of Ethics have a two-fold purpose. They inform lay audiences and novice practitioners about how experienced practitioners within the profession view themselves. And, they provide experienced practitioners with a reflection to check out from time to time. Distortion can occur because the practitioner has strayed from the model. Distortion can also come about because the model no longer reflects the way that most practitioners' view themselves. That's when it is time for a revision. Professions evolve. Codes of Ethics, if not reviewed and revised, can become seriously out of touch with what counts as appropriate practice. The Code of Ethics is the best description of the special role and special responsibilities of practitioners.

Codes also speak to an important, though unintended audience--he jury, when journalists and news organizations are accused of misconduct. Because of the potential of a Code being used in court proceedings, some have suggested that a Code of Ethics is a dangerous document to have on hand. However, a well-written code can help rather than hinder the defense of a journalist who has acted appropriately. This leads to the next area of consideration.

Is it clear in the Code, which expectations are minimal, which are conventional, and which are ideal?

Minimal standards are those standards for which a practitioner should be fired for not meeting. Intentionally adding to a victim's grief, violating a subject's privacy, or distorting the message of a news photo for monetary, award-winning, or political purposes are some of the actions that are beyond the pale for photojournalists. A Code should say when it is right for practitioners to be held blameworthy by employers and by peers.

Conventional standards are those that reflect how good journalists on the job act most of the time. Demonstrating respect for subjects and fellow practitioners is reasonably expected of those out in the field. Rudeness may not get one fired, but it is generally not the acceptable or expected practice. However, practitioners should not expect to be praised for being decent and courteous. That's one of the conventional expectations that just goes along with what it means to be professional.

Ideal standards are those that practitioners hold in their minds as aspirations. Statements of professional ideals answer the question, "What would a great photojournalist working well do in this situation?" Having an ideal in mind gives practitioners a goal to strive for in judging their own behavior and a basis for determining when to reward the behavior of peers.

All three levels of standards are important in a Code if it is to fulfill that important two-fold purpose. However, most Codes are a confusing mix of minimal, conventional and ideal standards. It is not clear to a non- or novice-professional which statements describe basic expectations and which describe ideal photojournalist. Clarifying which standards are which is imperative when you know that the Code will be considered by a jury. If the profession cannot say which standard represents a goal that few mortal journalists can meet on an everyday basis and which standard represents a minimal expectation that a photojournalist should be fired for not meeting, it is hard to vilify jurors when they punish journalists for not meeting what the profession thinks is an ideal standard.

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.

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