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)

Learning Ethics:
We Are All Teachers and Students

Can ethical behavior be taught? That's a question that faculty members from communications to philosophy ponder on occasion. Many would argue that by the time a person is in college, her moral standing is firmly entrenched and will not be swayed by one semester of ethics instruction no matter how inspirational the teacher or the subject matter. Such an argument leads to the notion that mass media ethics should not be taught within a single, specified course but either as a component of all courses in a curriculum or to give up all together and let the student learn on her own through professional experiences. However, moral development psychologists have shown that any provocative dilemma brings the opportunity for further growth whether it is an engaging hypothetical in the classroom or a real conflict in one's working life. The problem is that the success of any teachable moment depends on a myriad of uncontrollable variables including the student's readiness to learn from what is being offered.

Most from Lester's generation of shooters (first job in the 1970s), never had a media ethics course in college and didn't have much of a chance to look at ethics systematically in photojournalism classes. Fortunately, today's generation of visual journalists are much more likely to have had a general media ethics course while newsroom personnel are much more likely to include photographers in on the serious and detailed conversations that often are a part of any decision to use and image and how it should be run.

However, good luck trying to find a freestanding photojournalism ethics course. With tight budgets and few instructors knowledgeable about the unique ethical issues involved with photojournalism, the most instruction that any photojournalism student receives is probably one lecture in one class, with perhaps the topic coming up from time to time as the need arises.

At the least, looking and discussing case studies--often real-life situations that journalists experienced--is a popular method employed in most ethics courses and should be a part of photojournalism class discussions. Here's a case Professor Jack Zibluk at Arkansas State University uses in his photojournalism class:

It is a particularly cold winter and you're assigned to find a local groundhog for Groundhog Day. You learn that all the groundhogs are in deep hibernation, except for one at an area nature center. But the aboveground groundhog is out of hibernation because it is old, sick, and being sheltered. It is losing its hair. It coughs a lot. It obviously will not work for this cliché annual feature picture. You are at a loss. Suddenly, the park ranger comes up with an idea. She leads you down a hall and opens a closet. Inside there is a collection of stuffed animals--rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, and a groundhog. What do you do?
Deciding what one should do is not as simple as it sounds, nor should it be. The ethics instructors of today try to prepare future decision makers by teaching them a way of systematically thinking through such decisions on the fly. Elliott likes to ask her students six questions when discussing visual messages:

1. Does taking and displaying of the picture fit the social responsibility of the professional involved?
2. Has taking or displaying the picture violated anyone's rights?
3. Do viewers have a need to see the image?
4. Does the visual message cause harm that cannot be prevented?
5. Does the picture choice reflect a moderate choice between extremes?
6. Could a professional justify the choice if she didn't know which of the parties (subject, shooter, or viewer) she would turn out to be?
If some form of systematic moral analysis (found in ethics textbooks and taught in ethics classes) is used regularly in the newsroom and in the field, even the most seemingly innocuous situation becomes a chance for deeper self-discovery about how ethical decisions should be made.

But one mark of an inspired educator is that ability to teach students through example as well as analysis--and the best are often humbling, personal examples. After a thorough discussion with students disagreeing among themselves about using the stuffed groundhog supplied by the park ranger, Zibluk shows them a newspaper clip with the cutline, "Monte the Groundhog fails to see his shadow at the Westport Nature Center." A young Jack Zibluk for the now defunct Evening Sentinel of Ansonia, Connecticut took the picture. He explains to his students, "Monte is bright, erect, with snow on his feet and nose, and quite dead. Dead groundhogs cannot see their shadow, even on a bright sunny day. The city editor named him Monty because he was mounted." Zibluk tells his students that after 20 years of experience since that incident, he would not do it that way today because "it would set a precedent of manipulating news and that, if the audience knew, it would undermine their confidence in the publication." At least one member of the audience, the ranger knew the real situation, as did everyone she told.

Six more weeks of winter, but no doubt his students saw the light. Deception can be accomplished by truth as easily as lies. The ethical problem with deception is that people are intentionally led to a false conclusion. The ethical problem doesn't disappear based on how they were led there.

Formal educational training in media ethics, is a luxury that not everyone has experienced. But it is important to remember that we are all, at various times teachers and students in our attempts to do the right thing.

Can ethical behavior be taught? Possibly. But that shouldn't stop teachers--whether in academia or the professional ranks--from trying.

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