Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Director, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana
Paul Martin Lester, Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

Just in Case:
Using a Systematic Analysis to Study Ethical Dilemmas
You are a photojournalist for a daily newspaper located in the eastern part of the U.S. where a sniper is on the loose in the Washington, D.C. area. While out on an assignment taking pictures of people enjoying recently improved facilities at a city park, you notice a blue Chevy Caprice backed up in an odd location on the parking lot. Suddenly, you hear a loud explosion that sounds like a backfire coming from the car. With your telephoto lens, you take several pictures of a man hurriedly driving away. He never sees you. After the car is gone, you notice that directly behind where the car was parked is a gas station about 300 yards away. It looks like someone was shot.

Outcome One
You immediately rush to your newspaper to process the pictures for publication. Your images run large on the front page of the newspaper the next morning. Police authorities contact you for more information about your images and the man. You give them a vehicle description, license plate number, and the shooter's description, but you refuse to give them any pictures you took other than those printed in the newspaper. News organizations around the world call for permission to use your images in their news reports both for print and broadcast media. You make a lot of money from those requests.

Outcome Two
You immediately call the FBI and/or local police. When they arrive, you give them a vehicle description, license plate number, the shooter's description, and agree to give them all the images you took. You then rush to your newspaper to process the pictures for publication. Your images run large on the front page of the newspaper the next morning, but because police officials released the images you gave them, almost every major news organization around the world also used your pictures. Although you don't make any money from selling your pictures, your newspaper gives you a bonus.

The scenario was inspired by current events and photojournalists Alex Lloyd Gross, Steven E. Frischling, and Shane Iseminger from their comments on the NPPA listserv. As Lester used the scenario as the basis for his media ethics midterm exam, student responses give an example of how one might apply ethical thoughts and techniques to thinking through what actions might be morally acceptable.

Twenty-four students were divided into four groups-two were asked to discuss the case with "Outcome One" and two for "Outcome Two." Because this mass media ethics class is taught completely online, the software program keeps an archive of all conversations for further review. Due to space limitations for this column, only one discussion group-the one that made the highest grade-is included below. The students in this group that considered "Outcome One" were Tiffany Amidei, Nicole Barnes, Amy Barrett, Todd Brown, Stephanie Cole, and Brett Dains.

Students in the course use a Systematic Moral Analysis (SMA) as an aid for thoughtful commentary about mass media cases. Below are the eight sections that make up the SMA and the student responses:

1. What are the three most significant facts of the case?
1) There was a loud explosion, possibly a Chevy Caprice backfiring. 2) A man was photographed driving the Caprice away fast. 3) The photographer does not want to give any additional photos to the police as the story was printed on the front page.

2. What are three facts you would like to know about the case?
1) Was the guy alone in the car? 2) Was anyone actually shot at the gas station? 3) What was the content of the unpublished pictures?

3. What are the role-related responsibilities (RRRs) of the moral agents?
The reporter's RRR is to report the story to his editor and get it published. The editor, he would have to decide on whether to publish the pictures and how.

4. What are the conflicting values of the moral agents?
To publish the story because he felt it was right or to go to the authorities with his information and ask them what they would like him to do to help the investigation. Print it and the guy might be innocent. But don't print it and you might have missed the guy.

5. What are the conflicting loyalties of the moral agents?
The reporter showed that he was loyal to his paper and loyal to his need to be famous by printing the pictures right away and not going to the authorities.

6. What moral principles can you apply and why?
The utilitarian philosophy would say that the public would be served best by seeing a photo of the person. Kant would say follow what you have done in the past, have you printed pictures before? If so, do it again. Hedonism is what the reporter went for; he only cared for fame and money. Communitarianism would have the reporter contemplating how his printing the story will affect the outcome of the case. Aristotle's golden mean would have him speak with authorities first and find out what would be the best outcome for the public.

7. What creative/credible alternatives can you think of to resolve the issue?
Go to the authorities, but tell them they may not give your pictures to any news outlet. That way you can sell them and still be the first to publish. He needed to share ALL his info with the authorities, how else are we suppose to catch the guy?

8. What would you do?
I would run the story. But I would first find out if someone was actually hurt. I would contact the authorities first and find out what they would like me to do as to not interfere with their case, and then report a story based on what they say. I feel the public would be served the best this way. I would call the news desk where I work and tell them to get a chopper out and look for the Chevy Caprice.

Lester's general comments to his class included: Two words to keep in mind about this case: Richard Jewel. If you recall, media representatives accused Jewel of being the Atlanta Olympics bomber. You don't want to repeat that ethics error. It was never stated in the case that the person photographed driving away was in fact the sniper. An important value is the right to privacy for the person photographed. Because he may, in fact, be completely innocent. To print pictures of this person without actually witnessing him fire his weapon, would be journalistically irresponsible. To give the pictures to the police to let them decide what to do with them is a better alternative.

Whenever faced with a tough ethical dilemma, try to take the time to analyze it in a logical, systematic method. That way, your actions can be justified to yourself and to others who ask. With practice, the eight steps can be completed in a timely manner.

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