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

Excuses and Other Moral Mistakes:
Taking Responsibility for your Actions

Besides learning how to use complex equipment, be organized, be cool under pressure, and how to talk with many different kinds of people, one of the main lessons photojournalism should teach is to be humble when things go wrong. No matter the amount of planning, technical expertise, and experience, sometimes, when you least expect it, plans go awry. Film gets exposed, a digital card is bad, a battery goes dead, a camera jams, or those involved in news stories, their family and friends intervene-the list is almost endless. Unfortunately, in response, many in our profession learn an unhelpful lesson-how to come up with rationalizations or excuses when we don't come back with a picture, or how to excuse our less than civil behavior when we do.

An alternative to defensiveness, rationalization, and excuses is to start with the realization that none of us is perfect. Through ignorance, neglect, or intention, we all sometimes choose the less than ideal action. We make what philosophers call "moral mistakes."

Not taking responsibility for your choices when events don't turn out as planned is a kind of moral mistake. It is important to understand that good people-those trying their best to do what is ethically praiseworthy-make moral mistakes just as do those who don't try to live up to such high ideals in their personally and professional life.

The problem is that we live in a world that doesn't offer much guidance about how to distinguish moral mistakes from other kinds of choices. We don't get much practice in learning how to acknowledge and mitigate moral mistakes.

Below are two first person examples of choices-one is not a moral mistake and one is-faced by one of the authors of this column (PML) while working as a professional photojournalist.

Trespassing for the Greater Good

"F-8 and be there" was the mantra from Robert Capa that was drilled into us young photojournalism students and inexperienced newspaper photographers on our first job. The "F-8" part was easily understood, but how to get "there" was never explicitly taught. One hot summer day, a 5-alarm warehouse fire took over the blue, cloudless day with dense, black, bellowing smoke. Hoses, fire fighters, and fire trucks blocked the way to the fire so I parked my car and ran down a suburban street toward a side street where the fire blazed. I was about two blocks from the fire when a police officer (we used to call overly officious police personnel, "Officer Unfriendly") blocked my path. Despite the press badge around my neck and my calls to freedom of the press, this "Officer Unfriendly" refused to allow me to proceed any farther. I turned around, walked several yards away, waited until the Officer was preoccupied with someone else, and scooted between two houses. I then ran across several backyards and jumped over fences until I arrived at the scene. I took about three rolls of film and headed back to my car and the office. The image that ran in the paper was one taken at the scene-several firefighters sitting on the side of the street exhausted from the heat. The picture won the best news photo category in that year's Press Club competition.

I disobeyed a police officer who had no right to prevent my access. I crossed private property on my way to the fire scene. Was it a moral mistake? No. I would argue that any photojournalist ought to do the same. Our job is to get to the scene, even if that means ignoring illegitimate orders.

Adding to a Person's Suffering

A reporter and I were sent to the airport to cover a classic newspaper feature story-twin brothers, who were now 81 years old, were separated at birth and finally meeting. I was standing at the gate area with family members waiting for the brother arriving from London. I was wearing my usual array of cameras-three SLRs-one around my neck with a flash attachment and one around each shoulder with different lenses on them. My pre-visualized ideal was to get a picture of the brother's face as he first saw his sibling. What I didn't count on was seeing a world famous actress walking toward me from the airliner (so as to not compound my bad behavior, I'm leaving her name out of this column). When she saw me, she no doubt thought that I was there to take her picture. I found out later that she was having some relationship and career problems and probably thought she could get away from all the media attention by slipping quietly into an anonymous U.S. city. She shrieked, started crying, covered her head with her hands, and stood against a wall while her fellow passengers filed passed her. Finally, she mustered the courage to move and walked past me. She held one hand over her face and I took a flash shot of her.

Why? It was a terrible picture. The fact that she was on the plane wasn't newsworthy. And it was just an asshole thing to do. My excuse at the time was that as a celebrity, she was fair game. "Anyone would have done the same thing," I told myself. Taking the picture and excusing my action were both moral mistakes.

Below is a list of common excuses that people use in attempts to deny that they made moral mistakes.

1). Other people do it. Many of us justify an action because it is easier to go along with a crowd. If you see someone you respect accepting a free meal at a restaurant because the owner hopes for favorable coverage, it is sometimes difficult to do the right thing and pay for your dinner. It is also easy to convince yourself that others would mimic your bad behavior.

2). My boss told me to do it. As long as you are free to act in a voluntary or autonomous way, moral responsibility for your actions are not transferable to someone else. Your boss can take away your job, but not your moral agency.

3). Ethical behavior is fine in theory, but doing right doesn't get the job done. Philosopher John Dewey made the observation that people wave the banner of principle, but march to the drummer of expediency. That apt observation doesn't justify bad behavior.

4). My actions didn't hurt anybody. It is hard to know that for sure. Journalists are famous for the claim that they just report or print what is already out there. If a journalist is willing to take credit for the good that comes from a picture or a story, she must also be blameworthy for the harm that comes from it.

5). No one knew. Ethics is a first person activity. Intentions, motivations, and outcomes are always known to the person that matters the most-you. The lack of external consequences for an act is not the basis upon which you should judge the moral permissibility of your behavior.

In considering the ethics of behavior, remember the mantra: Do your job and don't cause unjustified harm.

In the first example, my job was to get pictures. It was not the police officer's job to prevent me from doing that. And since my trespassing on private property harmed no one, my actions, although not ethically praiseworthy, in that I did break a law, were ethically permitted. But generally speaking, it is better not to break laws, even one as trivial as this.

In the second case, I caused unnecessary and unjustified harm even if I were to agree that taking unexpected news photos is part of the job. The celebrity's arrival was not news and I should have respected her privacy. My actions were ethically blameworthy. I made a moral mistake and have never taken a photograph in a similar situation since. Being the unnecessary cause so directly of an innocent person's grief is a terrible burden to bare.

It's relatively easy, although often hard on our egos, to admit technical mistakes such as running out of film or even blowing the exposure of an important picture. It should be equally easy to admit to ourselves when we have made unethical choices. An ethical photojournalist always questions himself or herself. Ethical practice includes continual self-reflection. That includes accepting when we have done wrong.

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