The ethics of photojournalism goes far beyond the ethics of the newspaper photo
Today, the ethics of photojournalism goes far beyond the ethics of the newspaper photo. It includes the millions of news-related images that appear on our televisions, cell phones, computer screens, and other multi-media devices. We are an image-saturated world.
With these advances, photojournalism has become more complicated technologically and ethically. The claim that photographs and images simply “society mirror” events are no longer plausible. Moreover, photojournalists face tough ethical decisions on what to shoot, what to use, and if and when images can be altered.
In newsrooms, digital technology has all but eliminated the cumbersome process of film development. Digital images are easily transmitted, raising the demand for images. With fresh demand comes increased competition for the best, most dramatic photo.
Photojournalism works within the same ethical approaches to objectivity that are applied by other journalists. What to shoot, how to frame, and how to edit are constant considerations. Photographing news for an assignment is one of the most ethical problems photographers face. Photojournalists have a moral responsibility to decide what pictures to take, what picture to stage, and what pictures to show the public.
For example, photographs of violence and tragedy are prevalent in American journalism because as an understated rule of thumb, that “if it bleeds, it reads”. The public is attracted to gruesome photographs and dramatic stories. A lot of controversy arises when deciding which photographs are too violent to show the public.
Photographs of the dead or injured arouse controversy because more often than not, the name of the person depicted in the photograph is not given in the caption. The family of the person is often not informed of the photograph until they see it published. The photograph of the street execution of a suspected Viet Cong soldier during the Vietnam War provoked a lot of interest because it captured the exact moment of death. The family of the victim was also not informed that the picture would run publicly.
Other issues involving photojournalism include the right to privacy and the compensation of the news subject. Especially regarding pictures of violence, photojournalists face the ethical dilemma of whether or not to publish images of the victims. The victim’s right to privacy is sometimes not addressed or the picture is printed without their knowledge or consent. The compensation of the subject is another issue. Subjects often want to be paid in order for the picture to be published, especially if the picture is of a controversial subject.
Another major issue of photojournalism is photo manipulation – what degree is acceptable? Some pictures are simply manipulated for color enhancement, whereas others are manipulated to the extent where people are edited in or out of the picture. War photography has always been a genre of photojournalism that is frequently staged – see war photography: history for early examples). Due to the bulkiness and types of cameras present during past wars in history, it was rare when a photograph could capture a spontaneous news event. Subjects were carefully composed and staged in order to capture better images. Another ethical issue is false or misleading captioning.
The Lebanon, Syrian, and Afghan War photographs controversies is a notable example of some of these issues, and See photo manipulation: use in journalism for other examples.
The emergence of digital photography offers whole new realms of opportunity for the manipulation, reproduction, and transmission of images. It has inevitably complicated many of the ethical issues involved. Often, ethical conflicts can be mitigated or enhanced by the actions of a sub-editor or picture editor, who takes control of the images once they have been delivered to the news organization. The photojournalist often has no control as to how images are ultimately used.