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

On the Difference Between Aesthetics, Etiquette, and Ethics: 9/00

Welcome to the inauguration of our column, "Ethics Matters." We see this column as a collaboration between ourselves-a classically trained philosophy professor, who has spent some time in newsrooms and a professionally trained journalist, who has spent some time philosophizing. It is also a collaboration with you-professionals, academics, and students within the areas of still, video, and multimedia.

We hope this column contributes to the ever-widening and vital discussion of practical ethics-professional responsibilities and rights related to the public good. But this column will not exist long if it is only a dialog between two professors. "Ethics Matters" lives through your contributions of cases, commentaries, conversations, and contentions. As space permits, we will include as many voices into the discussion as possible. Consequently, we will discuss issues of concern reported in the general and trade press, discussions on the NPPA-L listserv, and telephone and e-mail conversations.

For this first column, we thought it wise to detail a number of so-called ethical issues that most of the time aren't. In other words, issues that are sometimes called ethical are really matters of aesthetics or etiquette. Knowing the difference between ethics, aesthetics, and etiquette helps focus the dialog on those issues that really affect subjects, victims, readers, and viewers. It is important to distinguish ethics from aesthetics and etiquette for two reasons. A question that is truly ethical deserves a response that addresses the human cost. If, for example, a photograph scheduled for publication is likely to cause pain, arguing that it is "a hellofa picture"-an aesthetic justification-doesn't provide the needed ethical grounding that is called for when someone complains. On the other hand, ethics can provide good reasons for publishing or airing images that readers and viewers find offensive. Sometimes, all aesthetics or etiquette aside, the public simply needs this picture-to have unpleasant information provided to them visually.


There has been an increasingly disturbing trend from photographers to concentrate on aesthetics as a part of their general assignments. More and more photojournalists are asked to also be advertising photographers shooting fashion, food, architecture, portrait, and editorial illustration assignments. These assignments take photojournalists away from doing meaningful documentaries about social conditions in their community. These economically driven assignments are fueled by news directors, publishers, and photographers who don't necessarily distinguish between magazine and television commercial advertising and classic photojournalism documentation. When a young photojournalist is expected to split her time between news and corporate controlled images, it's hard for her to take herself seriously as an on-call visual documentarian.

Aesthetic concentration can also result in undue emphasis on fixing supposed flaws in a picture-through lighting, cropping, dodging and burning, software filters, color corrections, and so on-that can, in the end, result in a misleading image. Imagine a not too uncommon scenario in which a photographer spends three hours on a fashion shoot in the studio and on a computer and then is asked to make a portrait of the mayor. Because of the advertising shoot, it is tempting to use all the tricks that are available to portray the mayor look as positive as possible.

Aesthetics also involve how an image is used-size, location, and whether in color or black and white in print and the web or its length and position for television news reports. And here's an interesting part of this distinction-aesthetically pleasing does not imply ethical problematic. Unless a photographer, editor, or news director manipulates the aesthetic features of a news visual in a way that misleads or could cause harm to a subject, reader, or viewer, no ethical problem exists. Although aesthetic qualities cannot substitute a need for meaningful content, it is also not unethical to include graphically pleasing visuals in a publication or newscast as part of its daily variety of visual messages. These images may not elevate the profession to a higher standard, but nor are they are not inherently unethical.


Included in the etiquette category are topics that come up frequently on the NPPA-L listserv such as inappropriate dress at a funeral, showing vulgar images, or paparazzi-style pack coverage. Questions of this type seldom really belong in a decision of ethics. It may be justified to wear sandals, shorts and a Hawaiian shirt to a funeral (when Jimmy Buffet dies), to show vulgar images (when a presidential candidate gives a one-finger salute to a heckler), or to follow a celebrity or candidate who dares media attention (as in the case of Gary Hart), but it is the assignment's relative news value that can make rude behavior okay.

Dictates of etiquette also provide guidelines of what to shoot and what not. Everyone has had unattractive moments when eating, walking, or even thinking. Rarely does an embarrassing picture sum up the whole story.


Because visual messages have great emotional power to educate, entertain, and persuade, there is a great responsibility put on every image producer for public consumption. To deal with the ethical aspects of visual presentations in a truly ethical way, start by asking this question: Why am I showing my readers or viewers this image? Is this picture likely to cause harm? The best reasons, ethically speaking, to show any news image is that it moves people to care and/or it helps people safely navigate through their daily lives. The greater the potential harm caused by showing the photograph or videotape, the greater benefit it should also be. Consequently, a journalist must be clear why a subject is selected, what tools are used and why, what words accompany the image, and how those words and images are used. If those decisions cause harm to subjects, readers, and/or viewers then they need to be explained to those who complain. One value of having a working vocabulary of ethics is that image decisions can be justified without resorting to simplified explanations that concentrate on aesthetics or etiquette arguments.

Historically, news photographers and videographers have been excluded from the compelling discussion of whether and how to run controversial material. But this new era of media convergence, in which photographers leave the darkroom for the newsroom, offers opportunities for collaboration that are starting to become standard procedure. The ability to separate out the ethical questions and the vocabulary to argue from a perspective of ethical justification helps visual reporters take their rightful part in the discussions and to expand the idea of collaboration.

return to the columns