• ETHICS: Photojournalism ethics

Rule number one: Take the picture.

Pictures don’t lie – or so we think.

Because a photograph resembles in size and shape what the eye sees, most people believe that pictures do not – cannot – lie. But that is not the case. Photographs cannot show everything the eye can see. Their focus and range of view is must narrowed than the normally functioning human eye.

In addition, they can only present the visual aspect of a scene at a particular moment. They cannot show what happened before and after the picture was taken. They cannot perspective and variation. They cannot provide context with ambient sound.

All of these things can change what we know about what we think we’re seeing in a photograph.

But despite these shortcomings, we still believe that pictures present us with a form of truth. And in that belief, we pay attention, respond and remember.

Therein lies the photojournalist’s dilemma.

Photojournalists understand that they are working with a powerful medium. They must constantly taken into account this power as they are taking and editing pictures, especially when those pictures are likely to be printed, broadcast or posted on a web site. They know that their presence is intrusive and disruptive, and they must try to alleviate those effects if possible.

Consequently, while being committed to telling the truth, photojournalists must be sensitive to situations and people where there may be the following elements:

  • grief
  • death and gore
  • embarrassment of individuals
  • possible negative stereotyping of groups
  • juveniles
  • criminality
  • sexuality

Even when these elements are present, however, photographers have a number one rule: take the picture. When something happens that is noteworthy, the camera should go up, and the shutter should be pressed. A decision can be made at a later time about publishing or posting the picture, but that decision cannot be made unless the picture is taken.

Rule number two: Don’t change the picture.

Photojournalism is replete with examples of photo manipulation. During the Civil War, Andrew Gardner, one of Matthew Brady’s assistants, moved dead bodies in the aftermath of a battle in order to improve the composition of the pictures. Many of the great photographers in the history of photojournalism have been accused of manipulating people, elements of composition or the photograph itself in order to enhance its impact.

Still, the profession of photojournalism – and by far an overwhelming majority of individual photographers – insists that pictures should stand as they are shot. In this age of digital manipulation, it is easy to eliminate elements or add items; that is, to do things to a picture that make it less truthful.

The best statement of this insistence is the code of ethics of the National Press Photographers Association, which states in part:

1. Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.

2. Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.

3. Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.

4. Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.

5. While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.

6. Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

7. Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.

8. Do not accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.

9. Do not intentionally sabotage the efforts of other journalists.




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