Can Photojournalism Observe a Code of Ethics?

Full Statement on Restrictions on Kenyan Media Operations

Photojournalism like print or broadcast media should inform, educate and entertain society. It also sets the agenda through its portrayal of images. Based on the above, Can photojournalism observe a code of ethics while:

Fulfilling the public’s “Right to Know” what is in the public interest? Respecting the private lives of the individuals?

Information is the oxygen of democracy. If people do not know what is happening in their society, if the actions of those who rule them are hidden, then they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of that society. But information is not just a necessity for people- it is an essential part of good government. The bad government needs secrecy to survive. It allows inefficiency, wastefulness, and corruption to thrive.

Information allows people to scrutinize the actions of a government and is the basis for proper informed debate of those actions. Information includes all records held by a public body, regardless of the form in which the information is stored (Toby Mendel (June 1999).

Role of pictures:

A good news picture is worth a column of words.  Therefore, any news item could be less informative, less complete and less attractive without pictures. Pictures not only supplement the text; they enhance and extend it by highlighting and pressing upon the reader important parts of it; they make it easier for the reader to build up a picture of what is being read.

Based on these, pictures, therefore, illustrates the text and forms an element in the page design. Thus a good picture will be considered to be worth a good space. Its shape and size will govern the disposition of stories and headlines around it. It will become a fixed point in the design to which the other elements adapt, although it still has to fulfill its function of informing the readers since it is part of the day’s input of news (F.W. Hodgson: 1998).

Media critics and viewers question the use of gruesome images, dozens of photographers hounding celebrities, picture manipulations that present misleading views, visual messages that perpetuate negative stereotypes of individuals from various multicultural groups, and images that blur the distinction between advertising and journalism. What is happening?

What is new, however, is the spread of computer technology that allows practically anyone to produce and disseminate visual messages in massive numbers for a worldwide audience. Because images evoke almost immediate emotional responses among viewers, pictures have a tremendous impact. With well-chosen words, visual messages combine to educate, entertain and persuade. But the flip side to such visual power is that images can also offend shock, mislead, stereotype and confuse.

Consider some recent examples: the debate on the composition of Mr. Kibaki’s family, pictures of emaciated hunger victims from all over the country, despair on the faces of children within the IDP camps. The stories featured above can be classified into five ethical concerns of most interest to photojournalism professionals: Victims of violence, right to privacy, picture manipulations, stereotyping and advertising/editorial blurring.

The right to privacy as a major aspect of the lives of the people – public and private lives will be based on.

Invasion of privacy has developed along with false light, private facts and misappropriates. Journalists need to understand that the public’s right to know often to be weighed against the privacy rights of people in the news. Inquiries into an individual’s private life without the person’s consent are not generally acceptable unless public interest is involved.

Public interest must itself be legitimate and not merely prurient or morbid curiosity. There are four types of violation of someone’s privacy:

A quarterly publication of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press titled, Photographers’ Guide to Privacy, is helpful in sorting out the areas of privacy law that affect news photographers. Privacy law is divided into four areas:

* Unreasonable intrusion into the seclusion of another,
* Public disclosure of private facts,
* Placing a person in a false light in the public eye, and
* Misappropriation of a name or likeness for commercial gain (Strongman, 1987).

Unreasonable Intrusion: Consent is the most important factor when dealing with unreasonable intrusion or public disclosure of private facts. Generally, anything that can be seen in plain, public view can be photographed. Pictures in private places require permission. A photographer must be sure that the person who gives permission has the authority to grant the request.

Disclosure of Private Facts: Trespass laws require that photojournalists have the permission of an owner of a property before access can be gained.

False Light: Dr. Michael Sherer (1987) of the University of Nebraska explained the concept of false light.

“Generally speaking,” Sherer wrote, “A photojournalist can be found guilty of false light invasion of privacy if a person’s image is placed before the public . . . in an untrue setting or situation”.

For there to be a false light decision against a photographer, the image must be highly offensive to a reasonable person, the photographer must have known that the image was false, or the photographer acted “with ‘reckless disregard’ (in other words, did not care) about whether the information was true or not”. 

Misappropriation: The fourth area of trouble for a photojournalist in a privacy case is using a person’s image for monetary gain without that person’s permissions, a photographer may have the right to photograph anyone in public, but problems will occur when that image is published and is used to represent a class of individuals without that person’s consent (Coleman, 1988).

When covering a news event, courts have ruled that photographers do not have to conform to rigid rules required for a subject’s consent. Nevertheless, news media organizations are sometimes sued by individuals who argue that because the newspaper makes money, their violation of privacy case is valid.

Most of these cases go in favor of the news organization on appeal because of the newsworthiness of the images. Freelance photographers, as Sherer (1987) noted, “need to pay special attention to the appropriation concept.

There have been cases in which the selling of a photograph without the permission of those in the image had been held to be an appropriation of the person’s likeness”.

Public officials and celebrities also feel that journalists sometimes cross that yellow journalism line in covering their everyday activities.

Historically, invasion of privacy issues is linked with candid photography. Limitations with the type of camera, lenses, and film in the early days of photography prevented many of the candid moments that are commonplace today. Once cameras became hand-held and lenses and film became faster, amateur and professional photographers were able to make pictures that previously were impossible.

It was rare when a photographer could capture a spontaneous news event. More likely, subjects in news and feature assignments were carefully composed by the photographer to create a static or stereotyped look. As Wilson Hicks (1973), author of Words and Pictures wrote, “Instead of picture consciousness, it was a time of camera consciousness. Practically everybody looked at the camera. . . .

When the photographer entered a situation of movement involving people, life stopped dead in its tracks and orientated itself to the camera”.

Privacy violations would not become an issue if it were not for editors who were willing to publish the revealing, hidden moments. Magazine and newspaper editors once the halftone process became relatively inexpensive and aesthetically acceptable, were eager to fill their pages with photographs that were used, admittedly, to sell more copies.

Hicks (1973) summed up the philosophy of the editors of the day with, “Get the picture-nothing else mattered”. This was the era of the scoop. The competition was so fierce that photographers would go to great lengths to beat a rival photographer.

Some critics complain that deadline pressures and competitiveness are responsible for journalists sometimes trampling on the privacy of others. Zuckerman (1989) noted that “News organizations, driven by intense competition, rarely let concern for a victim’s privacy get in the way of a scoop”.

The Star Sinai fire photo: a matter of ethics,facts and truth

The photo published by The Star:The scene at the Sinai slum at Viwandani location where fire prompted by a burst KPC pipeline. Over 80 people perished and hundreds injured. Photo/Jack Owuor

Consequently, photojournalists can observe a code of ethics while respecting the private lives of the individuals and fulfilling the “public’s right to know because it is the media’s job to publish what is true.

It is its job to give the audience news and that of truthful news. The most serious concern with the media is that what they reveal to the audience must be true because as a society we are greatly influenced by what we read, hear, and see through the press.

 The National Press Photographers Association, a professional society dedicated to the advancement of photojournalism, acknowledges concern and respect for the public’s natural-law right to freedom in searching for the truth and the right to be informed truthfully and completely about public events and the world in which we live. To that end the National Press Photographers Association sets forth the following Code of Ethics which is subscribed to by all of its members:

“It is the individual responsibility of every photojournalist at all times to strive for pictures that report truthfully, honestly and objectively.”

“In documentary photojournalism, it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way (electronically or in the darkroom) that deceives the public.”

Publishing false or inaccurate information directly is the biggest and most devastating thing a journalist or media can do. That is the underlying factor of the two.

Publishing private and true embarrassing facts may hurt someone severely, but journalists feel that it is a right for a person in the audience to know the truth. Ethically, the journalist must give the facts. Journalistic ethics understands that the worst possible thing is to give false information.

Not only is it ethically wrong, but also, through the law, libel is a bigger problem. In actuality most initial invasion of privacy suits, especially in false light are changed to libel suits because they are more damaging.

Moreover, many readers react strongly to pictures that seem to violate the privacy of others, it is important to be clear on the legal and ethical issues surrounding the right to privacy.

A guiding principle for journalists in deciding to cover a story is whether the event is newsworthy. Newsworthiness is not determined by the number of cameras pointed through, but a concept with roots to unemotional, objective and reasoned journalism principles.

In 1946, the Hutchins Commission came out with a definition of news that still applies today: A truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning. Unfortunately, media officials under pressure from circulation or rating figures make decisions that sensationalize rather than explain complex stories of interest to the public.

Live pictures for the nightly newscast of a speculating reporter in front of a brightly lit brick mansion increase the charge of sensational coverage by critics. In an ideal world, journalists tell stories in words and pictures that explain rather than cause a viewer to ask more questions.

Picture and subject manipulations have been a part of photography since it was first invented. But because of computer technology, digital manipulations are relatively easy to accomplish, hard to detect and perhaps more alarming, alter the original image so that checking the authenticity of the picture is impossible.

Computer technology did not start the decline in the credibility of pictures, but it has hastened it. Photographic darkrooms are quickly being replaced by computer workstation light rooms. But as long as photojournalists do not subtract or add parts of a picture’s internal elements, almost any other manipulation once accomplished in a photographic darkroom is considered ethical for news-editorial purposes.

Two factors may guard against further erosion of credibility in visual messages: Reputation of the media organization that publishes or broadcasts images and the words that accompany the manipulated picture.

Credibility is not an inherent quality of a particular picture, but a concept based on tradition, story choices, design considerations and reader perception of the company or individual that produces the image.

Words are also vital in assuring the credibility of a news organization and a picture. If a photojournalist or art director is tempted to combine parts from two separate pictures to create a third picture, the reader needs to know that such an action has taken place. The cut line for the image should include the details of the manipulation while the image itself should be labeled an illustration — not a news-editorial picture. Such an addition would at least solve one aspect of the ethical problem — letting the reader know of the illustrative technique.

In conclusion, photography is undergoing an exciting and challenging time in its history. Currently, the photographic medium is in a hybrid or transitional period between traditional film and computer technologies. It is reasonable to predict that by the first decade of the next century, photojournalists will no longer use film in their cameras or developer in their trays.

Print and screen media will also dramatically change as households are linked with fiber optic technology.

Newspapers and televisions will be transformed into a medium that combines the best attributes of the printed page, telephone, television and computer. These will transform passive readers and viewers into active users with instantaneous links to text and images from sources anywhere in the world.

But no matter how the tools of journalism change, fundamental ethical concerns still apply.

Photographers are constantly defining reality. By selecting what stays in the tiny 35mm frame and becomes a picture, the photographer makes a conscious or unconscious decision to edit out a vast majority of the scene. Choices of film, camera, lens, aperture, shutter speed, angle of view, filters, lighting, and cropping can change a photograph’s meaning. The reason why the principles of objectivity and truthfulness are so often stressed is because a photographer can easily lose his or her objectivity and not tell the truth.

Professionals, academics and students owe it to their readers to be sensitive to unethical practices that demean the profession and reduce the credibility of journalism.

Therefore, it is imperative that whenever and wherever possible, ethical issues be discussed by all those concerned about the journalism profession.

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