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)

Taking Ethics Seriously:
To Err is Human

(c) 2004

When we started writing this column in September 2000, we figured that we'd stop when we ran out of topics. As we write this, our 43rd and final column, we now understand why being professors who teach ethics have the most stable employment going. There will always be plenty of topics on which to write.

With all of the highly ethical photojournalism practiced, there are always those who make ethical mistakes, those who knowingly choose to act in unethical ways, and those who strive to do the right thing, but remain unsure if their judgment is right, given the pressure of making decisions on the fly. Our columns have contained examples from and commentary on all four of these categories.

While we have been struck by the repetitive nature of some unethical choices, we have also been part of bringing about change. As this column goes to press, a committee composed of the two of us, along with John Long, Ross Baughman, Sean Elliot, and John Menell are putting the final touches on a revised Code of Ethics for NPPA--the first full revision of the Code to be brought to the Board of Directors in the 58 years of the Association's existence.

The process of reviewing and rewriting the Code has led to insightful and inspiring descriptions of what it means to practice ethical photojournalism in today's world. So, we end this column with a stronger commitment than ever to our belief in the practice of ethical journalism and with the realization that the photojournalist of character is first and foremost someone who takes ethics seriously.

Taking ethics seriously does not imply doing no wrong.

We all make mistakes.

We all knowingly choose, sometimes, to do what is expedient or what serves our own self-interest over what we know to be the most ethical.

Taking ethics seriously does mean, at a minimum, that we are trying to do our jobs without causing unjustified harm. It means, ideally, that we are looking for ways to do our jobs better than we have and to make our world, our profession, and ourselves, better as well.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant noted centuries ago that if people were capable of always being ethical, there would be no need to learn ethics. We'd be what he called "Beings of Good Will," those who automatically do what is right all of the time. There would be no struggle or agony because Beings of Good Will innately know the right course of action to take. There would be no opportunity to learn from our mistakes because there would be no mistakes made.

Kant never thought that people could achieve that level of perfection. Likewise, it was never our goal to write a column that would somehow wipe out unethical behavior. Indeed, we have been grateful for the photojournalists, subjects, and viewers who have invited us write about their struggles, perspectives, and experience. It is literally the struggle we celebrate.

Human beings make mistakes. What is rarely understood is that making mistakes is essential for character development. It is necessary that we resist denying that a mistake has been made. We need to acknowledge the mistakes, figure out how and why mistakes are made, and then work to do better. In this respect, learning to be ethical is no more complicated than learning to take a good picture.

Those who take ethics seriously stay conscious of the power that they have and the responsibility that they have to use that power judiciously.

Those who take ethics seriously are consistent in their decisions and actions because they take the time to think about how one situation might be like another, ethically speaking. They try to treat all people fairly, with respect and compassion.

Those who take ethics seriously are able to explain the reasoning behind their choices rather than react defensively when questioned. They would be willing for their process, as well as their product, to be published on the front page and run in the first news segment on television.

Those who take ethics seriously listen with an open mind to alternatives. They know that it is easy to be fooled by what seems intuitively right and let other choices go unheeded.

Those who take ethics seriously make mistakes sometimes and act ideally sometimes and we all become better because of their example.

We thank all of you for your good work that brings us thoughtful and often hard-fought visual reports from across the globe and from across town as well. We respect and honor you more than you know. We especially are grateful to Jim Gordon for his ethical mentoring and leadership in editing this magazine for so many years and Donald Winslow for continuing to publish our work. Thanks to all who provided personal stories, probing questions, commentary, and criticism. We are better writers, better ethicists, and better people than we were before we started this endeavor because of you.

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