Ethical Photojournalism: when to print and when not to.

Walking to work last month, there was no missing the countless newspapers featuring photographs of Muammar Gaddafi, dead. True, the use of graphic images in the press isn’t new. Examples include photographs of people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center Towers on September 11th, charred American corpses hanging from the girders of a bridge in Fallujah in March 2004 and recently, the photographs of bloody Occupy Wall Street protester, Brenden Watts.  However, graphic images are not always released to the public.  President Obama, justifying the decision not to release photographs of bin Laden’s death, argued that “We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”  So, the question arises, when do we have an ethical obligation to print graphic photos, and when should we withhold them for the public good?

“Pictures usually have more impact on people than written words.  Their capacity to shock exceeds that of language,” argues Eugene Goodwin. Freedom of speech protects choices to print images, even if they are offensive.  When caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed were republished in 2006, many editors defended their decision because, due to their tumultuous reception from the Muslim community, readers had a right to know what all the ‘fuss’ was about.  However, an equally strong argument can be made that reprinting the cartoons set off violence, was an unnecessary provocation, and could have been successfully covered by merely describing the offending cartoons.  Similarly, were all the photographs of Gaddafi’s body needed?  The news is the same: he’s dead.  We don’t need gruesome images to be convinced. The images that appeared went beyond informing the public and seemed to celebrate his death. Arragon Perrone argues that it “glorifies the violence in an unacceptable way” and glorifying death is never responsible journalism. Isn’t it a little reminiscent of the middle ages when victors hung severed heads of enemies on spikes in public to celebrate?

When terrorists beheaded Nick Berg in May 2004, they released a videotape of his beheading but few media outlets did more than run a picture of Berg at the feet of his hooded killers.  Journalists gave two reasons why.  Firstly, it wasn’t necessary to show the video since we knew what happened. Why needlessly traumatize viewers?  Secondly, many felt that airing the video was propaganda.  McBride argued: “In the same way that running a slick PR photo provided by a corporation undermines your journalistic independence, so does running photos provided by terrorists.  You further their agenda.” Wasn’t the public good better served by not releasing the video?

It would be easy argue that publishing gory pictures is never ethical.  Perronne made an impassioned argument that viewers need never see gory images.  Descriptions are just fine. If you are inclined to agree, consider this.  From 1991, it was Pentagon policy to keep the media from photographing the caskets of American soldiers. The Pentagon defended this decision by arguing that it protected the grieving families’ privacy. However, it can be argued that withholding these images hides the truth.  The Associate Press Managing Editors conducted a survey and found that 98% of journalists and 83% of readers agreed that such photos should be printed.  Statistics do not portray the same message as photos, nor do they bring the same understanding of the scale, as does a single picture.  Hiding images suggests an attempt to shield the consequences of war, hiding reality.   This is not ethical journalism.

This dilemma becomes less difficult when we look at offending images case-by-case.  According to the SPJ Code of Ethics – a code that most reputable journalists subscribe to today – a journalist’s first obligation is “seek truth and report it”. However, there is also a section about “minimizing harm”, which calls on journalists to use moral consideration for those affected by images, implying an ethical obligation to act with sensitivity. Is the image necessary to tell the story or is there an ulterior motive? Kaddafi was a tyrant.  Many were happy he was dead. I would argue that publishing these graphic images was a celebration of his death, and not necessary to tell the story. On the other hand, the 9/11 photos of people falling to their death, I believe, helped tell the story about the horrifying choices of how to die that many trapped faced.  In such a cataclysmic and enormous tragedy, it is important to understand that these were not just buildings falling.   Similarly, the gruesome images of Fallujah showed just how deep anti-Americanism ran. I would not have published all of the Fallujah photos; the close-ups of charred bodies were morbidly unnecessary and we needed to see the celebrating crowds to show the entire situation.   In 1968, photographer Eddie Adams took the now famous picture of a police chief executing a Vietcong prisoner.  This photograph is such an important piece of news history because it tells a story and exposes a truth.  However, had the picture been snapped a few seconds later, it would have been unnecessarily gruesome and subtracted from the story. Eddie Adams’ photo needed to be published to uphold the ethical journalist’s obligation to expose truth.

– Simone M. Scully

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