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)

Aesthetics vs. Ethics:
When Will We Ever Learn?

Crisostomo, Demme, Motes, Rautert, and Yeich.

Do any of these names sound familiar? Brian Walski probably hopes they don't ring any bells. That might mean that his ethical slip, of fabricating a photo while on assignment in Iraq for the L.A. Times, as with the others, might soon be forgotten.

And perhaps that is how it should be. It is easier to remember the icons of fabricated visual journalism-pyramids, diet coke can, cowboy and the moon, ice skaters, OJ mug shot, and now a soldier and father-than those responsible. As members of this profession we should look beyond the individuals caught for their manipulation transgressions and, instead, consider the reasons that fabrications, falsifications and plagiarism occur over and over again. There is something about the current state of journalism that creates pressure for photojournalists to produce aesthetically perfect pictures, just as current pressures push text reporters to come up with the perfect quote, one way or another.

When the research science was rocked with scandals in the 1980's, it took that profession almost 10 years to move beyond the claim that fabrications, falsifications and plagiarism-the three acts that constitute research misconduct-were committed by a few bad actors. Finally, scientists in leadership positions realized that the pressures of scientific practice itself were prodding good scientists to do bad things. Ethical behavior was not rewarded as was the appearance of success. It shouldn't take a decade for journalism leadership to look for ways to reward ethical rather than unethical behavior.

We might start by looking at how aesthetic values began to take precedence over news values. In the practice of photojournalism, we can identify the trend started by Henri Cartier-Bresson. He's the photojournalist who, in his book published in 1952 with the same name, demonstrated and advocated finding and shooting "the decisive moment,"-that perfect and often illusive union of composition and content. For current photojournalists, in still and moving media, the definition for aesthetic value in news photography can be tracked from that concept.

And if it takes two almost decisive moments to create a third one that really is decisive, a photojournalist in the field might wonder what the harm is in combining the two if the basic story doesn't change. And is it really any wonder, in the age of airbrushed centerfolds and computer-animated, digitally-enhanced Hollywood blockbusters, that appearance takes precedence over truth? News publications face difficult choices in their battle to catch the eye of audiences courted by a media entertainment industry unhampered by the confines of accuracy.

The line between acceptable manipulation of fact and unacceptable fabrication is less than clear. No news story includes quotes in the order in which the reporter received them. The job of the journalist is to create a coherent story out of the pieces developed at different times in different settings. But, as reporters knew long before Jayson Blair, it is unacceptable to make up quotes to move a story along. In a similar way, photojournalists and videographers create visual stories out of the content and context and a professional understanding of the back story. Yet, as photojournalists should learn early, there is an ethical world of difference between the visual journalist changing position for a better shot and asking the story subjects to do the same.

But, while journalists are learning what counts as ethical journalism, they are also learning a contrasting message: an acceptable ethical piece of journalism is not valued as much as one that is excellent. Excellence is almost always judged by the ultimate news product, whereas ethical judgments take in the practitioner's intent and process as well.

Excellent journalism is defined by example in the ever increasing number of annual competitions. What newsroom doesn't gloat over awards won whether the contest is an SPJ regional competition or an international contest? Every attempt to garner awards or other kudos for the outstanding story or picture reinforces the message that it is the appearance of the final product that matters most.

Here's a formula that news managers can use to see if their values are out of balance. In any newsroom, the number of hours spent submitting entries for competition and the amount of time and space given to noticing wins should be less than the number of hours spent in ethics discussions and the amount of time and space given to noticing examples of ethical action winning out over easier or cheaper or more self-serving alternatives.

Ultimately, the choice for ethical journalism, like the extra something that produces aesthetically pleasing journalism, is in the control of the individual reporter and photographer. But, trying to measure up to expectations of aesthetic excellence takes a toll, especially if one is isolated and ethically confused. Some courageous practitioners, particularly those who are more experienced, will live up to their own high standards regardless of the conventional values of the newsroom. But, most journalists, like most people, reflect the values that are expressed and reinforced around them.

This is the time for news managers to recognize that they both have the power and the responsibility to put the value of aesthetic excellence back were it belongs, as important, but secondary to the value of ethical journalism. Each publisher and editor can work to create a newsroom culture in which ethical journalism is prized over aesthetic excellence.

When photojournalist Jamie Squire was called on recently to defend his picture of Kentucky Derby winning jockey Jose Santos, Squire said, "I definitely did not alter the photograph. I stand by my reputation on that." The reputations of individual journalists depend on the perception of the industry as a whole as well as upon their own good work. Credibility follows from news organizations demonstrating that they value ethical journalism above all else.

Arrow that returns to the columns.

return to the columns