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)

Taking vs. Making Pictures:
Readers Often Don't Know the Difference

When New York Times photojournalist Eddie Keating was accused last September of orchestrating a picture of a boy with a toy gun for a story about "a community in Lackawanna, New York, that was home to six men of Yemeni descent accused of being part of an al Qaeda sleeper cell," the predictable scolding regarding dangers of manufacturing news photos ensued. (See It reminded us of an infamous stage-managing case of several years ago: Norman Zeisloft's Feet. And as with Zeisloft, Keating's actions with the boy in the photograph were witnessed by other photojournalists from rival news organizations.

A 17-year veteran of the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent, Norman Zeisloft was assigned to cover a baseball tournament. As baseball games often go, sports action was hard to find. He spotted three fans in the stands and said that it would be "cute if you had 'Yea, Eckerd' written on the bottom of your feet." One young man agreed and Zeisloft started to write. A photographer for a competing newspaper took a picture of him writing on the bottom of the fan's foot and later put it up on his photography lab's bulletin board as a joke (emphasis added).

Zeisloft's pen would not write on the man's dirty sole so he returned to shooting the game. In the meantime, the man in the stands washed his feet, wrote the message on his foot and called Zeisloft over. He took the picture. Zeisloft gave the image to his editor without a word about the stage-managed situation. Two days later it was printed in the Evening Independent.Life magazine's premier picture story producer, admitted, "If I really felt that it was absolutely essential to the truth of the story, I would not hesitate to pose the subjects." Posing is close to the ethical line. Writing on a foot to create a more interesting picture is over the edge.

We join the recent chorus of criticism against stage managing news photographs, but with a slightly different song. One use of a posed news photo does not necessarily make a photojournalist unethical; one photo illustration that accompanies a news story does not destroy reader credibility.

Our concern is not with a potential slippery slope that begins with running a posed picture of a little boy with a toy gun and ends with staging news photos of violent crime in action. However, we are concerned that drifting professional conventions threaten to further blur the line between news and entertainment, between news photography and portraiture. And, our observation is that, at least in this case, pack journalism has its merits.

Few readers or viewers could articulate the difference between an editorial photo and a photo illustration. Few could explain the difference between the nightly news as seen on the major broadcast networks and "Hard Copy." Few could describe the criteria they would use in determining if CNN's "Connie Chung Tonight," is news. In fact, as CNN describes it, Chung "unravels the news through the people who experience it." We're not sure whether to classify that activity as news coverage or not.

Media owners have been complicit in the consumers' confusion of news and entertainment. The slicker the package, the better the ratings, and thus the diversion of resources to hair, makeup, and splashy graphics instead of investigative journalism. Full color feature photos find their way above the fold on the front in many small and medium market dailies and the importance of tension between the U.S. and U.N. Security Council shrinks in comparison. Print and broadcast news have become increasingly attractive and "user-friendly." But, what is lost on consumers is the special nature of news.

News is essentially information that citizens need so that they can make educated decisions for self-governance. News media-through text and images-provide citizens with far more than that needed information. Sports and society photos, crossword puzzles and comics, advice columns and advertisements, weather reports and wandering photojournalists with cameras looking for feature and general news pictures in a neighborhood all help consumers know themselves and their community better. But, it is important that news producers and news consumers don't forget what makes journalism different from all of the other forms of mass communication.

The importance of keeping the journalistic distinction is, in one sense, pragmatic. Journalism competes with an ever-increasing array of information givers and persuaders. When consumers become more confused about the difference between journalism and other kinds of communication, the less call there will be for hard-hitting, traditional journalism.

The need for journalistic distinction is intrinsically important, as well. Studies on deliberative democracy show that people do make more rational decisions when presented with objective facts and empirical evidence. Journalism done well does what it is supposed to do-educates citizens so that they can intelligently participate in their self-governance.

A picture of a boy with a toy gun does not deceive viewers, particularly as the cutline accurately described the boy as playing with a toy gun. However, an overtly posed or tacitly encouraged picture of a boy with a toy gun does deceive. Further, the harm to journalism is that readers naturally assumed that the picture of a boy with a gun (however it was produced) and the news story about the accused neighbors were linked. The more that the reader needs to wonder about the relevance and spontaneity of purported news photos, the less trust the reader has that what is presented is really, truly, hard news. And, thus, the dangerous blurring of conventions continues as the line between taking and making images is blurred.

A final comment on pack journalism: critics, consumers, subjects, and managers-hoping for some unique angle-all decry it. Yet, the one positive aspect of having a bunch of competing journalists in one place at one time is that they watch one another while waiting for something to cover. As Norman Zeisloft and Eddie Keating learned, any photographer, videographer, or a reporter with a pen and pad thinking about cutting corners is less likely to do so if their professional sin is likely to end up as footage for a competitor. Morality through surveillance is not what most philosophers would call moral sophistication, but it beats the alternative. We'd all like people to do the right thing for the right reasons, but most of us would settle for people doing the right thing.

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