Picture This: The Ethics of Photo and Video Journalism
We are constantly bombarded with sets of images. Every time we log into our social media accounts we see images of our friends and family, images of weekend festivities, images of political leaders in news stories, and images of current events occurring around the world. The Internet images do not even cover the tangible images we see on advertisements, magazines, newspapers, and billboards. With the high quantity of images that seem to captivate our attention even for a split second, we have essentially become used to the high levels of exposure. Even if images have established themselves as a daily part of our lives, should we question the human element and decision making that occurs behind the lens? The answer is yes. Just as we hold journalists accountable to always seek and tell the truth, we should also hold photojournalists to the same standard of truth telling and honesty no matter the situation. Photojournalism offers a different medium to communicate events through, which many people use as an information source. So if the photojournalist fails to uphold a high standard then people are fed incorrect, misleading and subjective information.
Images are arguably the most powerful medium of communication in the world. The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” especially holds true in the case of reporting events. Think about the photos that were taken during the tragic event of 9/11, the written word could not have delivered the emotion that the photos tell by simply existing. By seeing a photo, it almost validates that event and makes it come to life again with each view. Since the photo has this much power, it is important to consider how the lens is not always objective. In other words, just because a photo illustrates an event, this illustration is not always free from the bias of the person behind the camera or the editor behind the computer screen. Arthur Berger summed this issue in Seeing Is Believing where he said that “a picture is always an interpretation of reality, not reality itself”. This quote holds true with all photographs because one picture taken from an event is guaranteed to differ from another picture taken from that same event. Further, a picture does not capture the whole scene and the full experience, instead it memorializes one slice of one moment eternally. This has many ethical implications because how one person views history or interprets an event is dependent on what story or emotion the photographer wanted to depict from that event, which makes pictures not always a full account of the truth.
Another reason why photos are not necessarily reality is because of tampering either with the photo scene before the shot or after the photo with computer applications. Both actions are not objective representations of reality and provide a biased view of what really happened in that second. Many ethical questions can be discussed about tampering photos. First, it is important to understand there are many loyalties at hand. In labeling a certain photo as “art” and allowing it to be manipulated, but later posting it on a news story as the truth, would this be unethical? It would depend on what the person is loyal to. It they value truth over everything else, then this intentional interference would be considered unethical. If the person found value in changing a photo’s content to make it more of an artistic piece, then it would not be unethical. However using the Pluralistic Theory of Value, manipulation would be unethical because this theory emphasizes how there are certain duties to uphold. One duty is the claim to tell the truth; once the photo is changed in any way, the truth of the event no longer exists. By manipulating how an event is consumed and viewed by others, a duty is neglected.
Another aspect to think about is what photos to take and whether or not controversial photos should be posted. It is important to consider people’s privacy. If shooting a photo will result in more harm for the individual then is there value in publishing a photo for society to see? Applying the principle of Communitarianism would lead to developing an understanding that individual rights need to be balanced with the interest of the community as a whole. This means that if there is a picture of a brutal murder scene does that need to be seen by the entire community for people to understand what occurred? In this case, the photo would not need to be posted because it does not add any value to the story itself. Another aspect to think about is how the person feels if a photographer snapped a photo of them and used it just to get a great accompanying photo with a story or to be recognized at some award show. The photographer would solely be using the person as a means to an end, which Kant’s Categorical Imperative warns against. This principle seeks to treat others the way you want to be treated and no one wants to be used by another person. What makes it worst in this situation is that once the photo goes viral or enters the mainstream media channel it is near impossible to recover from the publicity that can follow the initial posting. For such reasons, it is important for the photographer to think about how the photo carries heavy implications for others.
When deciding on whether or not to publish a photo due to the content it is important to separate a photo that is outright offensive versus a photo that actually communicates the news visually. For instance, let’s say there is a photo of police brutality where a heavily armed police man is violently beating a person who is African-American. Would this photo be considered offensive to a segment of the population or would it serve as a social statement that the public has a right to know about? To provide us with some ethical guidance, we can consult Aristotle’s Golden Means principle, which emphasis that the ethical choice is the means between the two extremes. In this case (of the violent photo), one extreme would be to edit the photo to make it less realistic and raw; however, this would essentially take away from the severity of the action illustrated. The other extreme would be to use the raw image; however, this might be too graphic and too visual for some consumers. The middle point, which is the ethical point, would be to use the photo, but if you manipulate it in any way that needs to be labeled. This way the reader knows that this photo was cropped or photoshopped in a way to make it less graphic. It is also very hard to determine what is too graphic because every has a different tolerance level.
Additionally, it is not only the photojournalists that this ethical discussion of photography and news applies to. It also is extended to the public when considering the many occasions when people, not associated with any news channel, have participated in covering an event through taking video or pictures and posting them on social media sites. This offers an opportunity for greater coverage and more opinions to enter the public sphere for debate and conversation. However, the same rules and standards must apply to citizen journalists as do professional journalists because both roles result in communicating the facts to a general audience. The ethical issue in this situation is that journalists are held to a set of ethical codes that specify how journalists should report news, yet citizens who report the news lack a set of predetermined ethical codes to implement. This could result in a reduction in the quality of how photojournalism is reported or could cause people to misunderstand a certain issue. An ethical principle that could help guide us to a moral decision is Utilitarianism, which illustrates that what is good is determined by whatever choice provides the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. In the context of whether a news source should use a graphic video or photo posted by a citizen in their reporting, the news source could consider the implication of using the video on the greater community. If the graphic video would generate more views and attention, but would offend the public rather than provide a source of knowledge, then the interest of the community would be placed before the profits of the news source. The phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” fails to consider what is the best for the larger community because this upholds the use of violent photos and videos in order to generate more attention and sensationalized stories.
There are many ethical implications to consider with photojournalism. These ethical issues will only become more complex as societal values change and evolve with how we choose to communicate with one another. What we consider to be too violent or too obscene to print or post today may become accepted in the near future. However, there still needs to be consideration and discussion around the ethics of tampering with a photo or setting the scenery of a photo to look a certain way because once the button is clicked, that scene is how future generations will view the event.