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

Is it Ethics or Etiquette to Ban Those You Know From the Media?

Given all the controversial and serious topics that are asked and expressed on the NPPA-L listserv, there is an almost endless supply of column ideas. Listserv members expound on these and other perennial topics: the treatment of photographers by those in the news, the treatment of those in the news by photographers, and probably the hottest issue, the treatment of photographers by each other on the listserv. These are serious topics that demand serious and thoughtful responses.

Photograph by Debi Haussermann, Northwest Florida Daily News, used by permission

But, sometimes, a topic is that not a matter of life, death or reputation can help to clarify what counts as a true "ethics" issue. Recently, a listserv message from Mark Kulaw, of Northwest Florida Daily News evoked a discussion thread that became at once entertaining and touching. And, it made clear that attaching the label "ethics" to a disagreement does not an ethical problem make.

With the subject heading of "A Question of Ethics," Kulaw wrote of a three-column picture of a cat belonging to a staff photographer's roommate. After the picture ran in his paper, a copy desk editor reportedly questioned his ethics. So Mark asked the list if it was unethical "to use anyone affiliated with the paper or their family in the newspaper (even a roommate's pet)" and if any shop has a written policy against this type of picture.

This seemingly trivial topic attracted a variety of responses.

Mark Hertzberg, The Journal Times, Racine, Wisconsin, was first out of the gate and explained his paper's "no family pictures" policy: "We have a policy to photograph anyone but a co-worker's family ... this applies to anyone who works for the paper. We have two reasons for this: ... it's better ... to have people without "connections" have a chance to be part of the newspaper. The second is that because so many white people work here, going outside the paper ... is a chance to diversify our content to reflect the community better. As for a roommate's cat, that's taking things to a level beyond where I think they need to go.

Richard Cotton, a freelancer based in Saltillo, Mississippi, pointed out that hard and fast rules are sometimes hard to swallow: "I have three daughters, none of whose photos have ever been in a paper where I've worked. That includes times when photo editors actually picked photos of them that I took when they were with me on various assignments. Dutifully, I would say, "Those are my daughters." And those photos were discarded in favor of photos of non-related subjects that were not as good.... The rule is sad and stupid. Once in a great while-or maybe even just once-put your family in the paper. It won't cause the end of this most lofty of pursuits we call journalism."

Indeed, depending on the community, putting family members and pets into the news can BE the policy. Carmen Sisson, Northport (Alabama) Gazette, offers the following: "I'm pleased to see so many people support publishing pictures of family/pets/staffers in the paper. A long time ago, my paper decided we would allow this as long as it wasn't a setup.... We are a community weekly, and we are deeply involved and invested in our city. For that reason alone, it's sometimes nice to see ourselves in its pages.... I'd rather see a good picture of a staffer's dog rather than a boring press release that's already ran in five papers before we get it."

Keith Morison, The Calgary Herald, Calgary, Alberta, objected to invoking the E word: "OK everyone, the ETHIC word is being WAY over used and mis-understood. This is a question of POLICY not of ethics. IF it were unethical to take pictures of newspaper employees, you wouldn't be able to do stories on the circulation dude who saved a life or the mailroom worker who's holed up with a gun. IN general it is better 'form' to go out to the 'real world' to find real pictures, but THAT in itself is not an issue of ethics. Laziness perhaps."

But there are some motivations for including a friend that are unethical. Lester, late of The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, remembers that in his misspent youth, he once was overcome by the desire to impress a partner: "In 1977, I once photographed my girlfriend standing under a car that was lifted up in a garage so it looked like she was holding it up. Talk about wild art??!! It ran and I think because of it, we stayed together an extra six months."

Situations like that are unethical because of the misuse of power.

But, for the most part, cute kids reign when it comes to familial subjects for photographers. Here are three examples:

Mike Anderson, KOB-TV, Albuquerque admitted: "I made a "photog's package" for the news one time of my (then) 4 year old nephew on an Easter egg hunt. Great piece that ran 2 minutes as he ran around and found all the eggs. No one at work cared that I was related to the kid."

Chuck Kneyse, freelancer with Black Star, late of the Idaho Statesman, wrote: "Just over 20 years ago when I was working as a staffer at a paper in Idaho, I took advantage of the fact that I was a father of a young son. I was given the assignment to do a photo illustration to accompany a story on children and the law. It was intended to be a generic photo where one could use any appropriately aged model. I ended up photographing him sitting in a playpen with a volume of the Idaho Code sitting in his lap which I "chummed" with Doritos to improve his attention span. No one at the time even considered that a disclaimer was needed that he was the photographer's son. All that mattered was that it satisfied the requirements of the assignment."

Robert Cooper, The News Herald, Panama, Florida: "once grabbed a shot of my daughter sitting in a washtub in the back yard. I just snapped it because she looked so darn cute and had this wry little smile. My editor chose not to use it. I put it on the AP and I got some great feedback and notes from friends in other towns that saw it. I love my job."

Having a picture policy that includes or excludes friends, family members, co-workers, or pets is one in which reasonable members of newsrooms can disagree. Does it lessen the perception of professionalism to use those images?


Is it okay to include a photo of a friend, a family member, a co-worker, or a pet as part of a feature or illustration?


But, one point we might all agree on, whether standing in a newsroom or looking in from the outside is this: getting your picture in a newspaper or on television is a big deal. Friends and family members will ask for videotapes or buy extra copies of the paper. They will cut out clips, send them around the country, and keep them in old scrapbooks until they turn yellow with age. Is it any wonder why a photographer would be tempted (we would hope on rare occasions) to feature a friend, family member, or feline?

The bottom line with a discussion of this type is that for the most part, this issue is not about ethics, as Keith Morison rightly pointed out. The topic isn't about whether someone is morally right or wrong. This is not a discussion concerned with behavior that might cause harm to someone else.

Policies and attitudes that prohibit a friend, family member, or pet to be used in a publication or on television are generally examples of good etiquette. Knowing a photographer or videographer should not give someone special access to news pages or programs.

Ethical issues hinge on whether someone is harmed. Etiquette creates customs that give everyone a chance.

So with etiquette as the main focus, here are a few guidelines for using subjects you know:

As rules of etiquette are in place to lubricate social relations, it might be better just to point the camera elsewhere.

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