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

Media Ethics Goes to the Movies:
What Photojournalism Films Can Teach Us About Our Profession


As with all professions, continuing education, particularly when it comes to ethical issues, is a key to positive development and satisfaction in one's chosen career. Besides on-the-job training and experiences, sources for ethical sensitivity include newsroom and listserv chats, heart-to-heart talks with former professors, friends, and family members, "Flying Short Course" and other convention presentations, books and magazines, and one of our favorites—watching movies.

Journalism movies are a staple of Hollywood. In fact, there have been over 2,000 movies produced that significantly involve journalists in the plot. A sub-genre of special interest is the photojournalism movie. Although not as plentiful as reporter films, they nevertheless offer a unique opportunity to study the moral and professional conduct of still and TV professionals through the frame of Hollywood's camera. Unethical behaviors, work and relationship pressures, and stereotypical portrayals are typical subjects for directors.

On the NPPA listserv, some members named their favorite movies and television shows that featured still photographers and TV videographers. Most of the movies on the list can be found at your local video rental store. Titles in quotations are TV movies or series:

84 C MoPic (1989): A film crew follows an Army unit in Vietnam, filmed in southern California, of course.

Apocalypse Now (1979): It's a small role, but Dennis Hopper is a classic, burned-out shooter/groupie with way too many cameras.

Batman (1989): Kim Basinger is a whiny ex-war photographer who finds a new boyfriend.

Before the Rain (1995): A photojournalist's dilemmas are confronted when taking pictures of war in his home, the Balkans.

Blowup (1966): Michelangelo Antonioni's classic about a fashion photographer who likes to entertain young women in his studio.

The Bridges of Madison County (1995): A National Geographic photographer gets an assignment perk.

La Dolce Vita (1960) A character, Paparazzo, is the source for the celebrity-stalking word.

Double Exposure aka Margret Bourke-White (1989): Farrah Fawcett is Bourke-White, a REAL angel.

"Dying to Tell the Story" (1998): A moving documentary of a sister's search for the meaning of photojournalist Dan Eldon's death in Somalia.

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978): Faye Dunaway tries to convince us that she can perform a role besides Bonnie with Clyde.

"Frankie's House" (1992): Named for the brothel where photographers hung out (go figure), tells the story of young photojournalists in Vietnam.

Full Metal Jacket (1987): A gritty, compelling tale of war and covering the war in Vietnam, directed by Stanley Kubrick in his prime.

Godzilla (1998): Another photojournalist (Hank Azaria) named, "Animal" who lives up to the part (I'd divorce him too).

The Killing Fields (1984): The story of Dith Pran, who escaped Cambodia to become a photographer for the New York Times (What a country!).

"Lou Grant" (1977): The origin of the stereotype of the sloppy, isolated photographer, "Animal" as portrayed by Daryl Anderson.

Medium Cool (1969): Directed by Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Days of Heaven) is a commentary about television violence.

"Moment of Impact" (1999): Six Pulitzer Prize photojournalists tell how they got each picture.

"The Naked Truth" (1995): Ta Leoni as a Pulitzer-nominated tabloid photographer. Yea, right.

Paparazzo (1995): A tabloid photographer's relationship woes.

The Paper (1994): A young staff photographer must prove herself to the seasoned pros.

Pecker (1998): Rediscover the joy of taking pictures in this John Waters film.

The Public Eye (1992): Joe Pesci plays a Weegee-like ambulance chaser.

Rear Window (1954): This movie proves that with a long enough lens any photographer can get Grace Kelly as a girlfriend.

Red Kiss aka Rouge Baiser (1985): A French photographer befriends a young Communist and the fun ensues.

Salvador (1986): James Woods plays a photographer who drives to El Salvador to cover the war, directed by Oliver Stone.

"Shooter" (1988): Based on David Kennerly's book about a group of photographers covering the war in Vietnam.

"Shooting War" (2000): Tom Hanks narrates this tribute to those who documented WWII.

"Somebody Has to Shoot the Picture" (1990): A man on death row demands that his state-sponsored murder be televised.

Spiderman (2002): At day, a newspaper photographer, at night, a super-hero. Hey, they finally got it right!

Superman, TV series (1953) and movies (1978): Jimmy Olsen is the classic photojournalist stereotype—young, nerdy, and clueless.

"TV 101" (1988): A television videographer quits to teach high school.

Under Fire (1983): Makes you remember that photo manipulation often involves more than digital software.

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997): A journalist gets a little too close to a story.

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982): Linda Hunt, a photographer, supplies journalist Mel Gibson with the real story of Indonesia.

Z (1969): A military cover-up in Greece is uncovered by journalists.

After hearing about favorite movies, we asked members of the listserv to respond to the following question: What ethical lessons did you learn from the photojournalism movie you recommended? Below is a brief sampling of the responses, used by permission (thanks to all):


The photographer was willfully used in an unethical way (set up to fail on an assignment), but it's sad that photographers are often used unthinkingly. They are often sent somewhere just to placate a caller, either from the public or an official, when the assigner knows it's probably a waste of time.

Tom Hubbard, Ohio State School of Journalism and Communication

As a freelance photojournalist with dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that causes my head to shake uncontrollably (see for more information), I am often stared at and rarely taken seriously. Although I may look awkward when I photograph, my mind, hands and legs are steady. Like the female photographer in The Paper, I am determined and feel I have to prove myself more so than any other photographer. Let people stare if they must, but I'm going to be in the middle of things and I'm going to get my shot!

Kendal Bushnell, Freelancer, Panama City, Florida


I loved the movie because of Joe Pesci's character, but certainly almost ALL of the things he did on the job would be ethically WRONG in this day and age. I loved the scenes where he drove down the street, looking left and right, and a flash bulb would go off in his head when he saw a moment happening. The Public Eye is my favorite crusty-old-fart pj movie. It is a very evocative film, but cheesy in places, that has the great line in it where Pesci is at a murder scene with the cops. "Hey, put the dead guy's hat in the picture. People like to see the dead guy's hat."

Jim Lavrakas, Anchorage (AK) Daily News


I guess what I pick up from this movie—as it relates to photojournalism—is that each of us is responsible for our own truth. We can avoid the truth by not asking questions and we can try to change the truth by manipulating it to our desires. Does that change the truth? I don't believe we can or should try to manipulate what we see. We are responsible for getting it as right as possible. It's like we are making a base for a truth in a picture because we are there at that moment. It must be as true as possible because of what might/will happen to it later.

I also thought it was interesting that the photographer shot both still and video—something that is "new" today.

Suzanne Feliciano, The (Frankfort, KY) State-Journal


James Woods' dedication to his Salvadorian girlfriend is admirable. I wish we, as journalists, brought that sort of passion to our every day subjects.

There's a scene, towards the end when Woods and another photographer are caught in cross fire. The other fellow quietly makes frames with his Leica and, in the end, is shot. Woods tries to dissuade him from making the images, but in the end smuggles the film out of the country for his dead colleague. There's a dedication to the story there, as well, I suppose. Again, a passion or commitment to the subjects at hand.

Mark E. Johnson, Utica (NY) Observer-Dispatch


This movie taught me to be honest in all situations. The photographers were trying to get more money out of UPI by paying fictitious photographers fees and turning the money over to an orphanage. Certainly an honorable cause, but if you are caught, it reflects on all aspects of the way you do your job.

Dick Van Nostrand, The Bay City (MI) Times


Roy Scheider plays a photojournalist who had won a Pulitzer Prize and then left the grind of daily journalism to be a commercial freelance photographer. Scheider was convincing as a photographer because someone in the production crew (or Scheider himself) really did their homework. He was shooting a Nikon F3 (pretty common, even then). He was using a Vivitar strobe angled up, with a bounce card, and he carried a dark brown Domke bag. He handled the camera in a believable way and portrayed a true photojournalist very well.

Paul Gero, Arizona Republic


This film teaches several lessons: Faking images can be done without the use of a computer, every pj should try to be objective, no pj should think that he or she is able to be objective in any situation, be aware that you can be used every time you're invited to take pictures, and don't take pictures of your editor's former girlfriend—it's only trouble (attention: joke!).

Guido Frebel, Bochum, Germany

Nick Nolte fakes a photo of a dead guerrilla leader because his feelings are with the people being oppressed by the Samozan government in Nicaragua government. Wrong again! If you are caught doing this people will never trust you or your photography again.

Dick Van Nostrand

I think this movie was unique in offering the notion that photojournalism has incredible value and that, when used to fool people, can actually change the course of history. It's interesting that the idea of ethics in journalism came out in a mainstream film. Although it is an interesting ethical situation in photographing a dead person as though he were alive, I think I really only saw it as entertainment. I don't think that this film was meant to open up thought on ethics on news photography on a national scale. It wasn't meant to implant the idea that "hey, these news folks are tricking us" nor was it meant to teach ethics to up and coming journalists. My training in ethics came from school and work in the field. Oh, but then who knows? I saw the movie before I started my training and maybe it did have a subliminal effect. I am somewhat sensitive about such things.

Craig Kohlruss, Fresno Bee


This movie gives an initial glimpse of the power of the image, and of journalism, and how that continues to inspire me as a working photojournalist. Given the awareness of the potential power of the images we produce, we must also recognize the responsibility that places on us, or on me, as a photojournalist, to not misuse or abuse that power, and whatever trust our viewing public places in us and our work. I think it is always good to keep these things in mind. It is the responsible thing to be mindful of.

J. Michael Short, Laredo Morning Times

With stars, scenery, and situations, motion pictures are dramatic and riveting. And yet the screen is simply a mirror that reveals all the best and worst qualities of everyone in the theater. That is why the stories and the characters are so familiar. So on a day off, try to see one of these photojournalism movies, but also take a moment to think about the ethical issues explored (or ignored) in the film.

Popular culture can even provide the basis for academic analysis. One of us (Lester) will be teaching a course in the spring titled, "Media Ethics Goes to the Movies" in which panelists and the student audience will discuss the ethical issues in 14 media-related motion pictures. Check out the syllabus at:

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