Chapter Three
Finding a Philosophical Perspective


Paul Martin Lester

Photojournalism An Ethical Approach

(c) 1999

The problem with photojournalism ethics is that answers are not easily found when they are most needed. What answers there are, are often derived from emotional outbursts rather than from the calm of reason. Surveys are mailed to photographers with situations detailed. Respondents are asked to rate the actions of photographers in hypothetical situations. For example, in one study, 38% of professional photographers in a national survey said the actions of a photographer during a specific situation is ethical. However, 34% rate the same action as unethical. Which group is right? Can the right answer ever be determined? How are right answers derived?

The introduction to Approaches to Ethics (Jones, Sontag, Beckner, & Fogelin, 1969), states, "Ethics is not primarily concerned with getting people to do what they believe to be right, but rather with helping them to decide what is right" (p. 8). Such a definition implies that there is an overall right thing to do regardless of a person's conflicts with values, principles, and loyalties. A photographer may have a very different ethical orientation than an editor or a reader depending on the situation. Taking a picture of a stressful subject is a photographer's choice. Printing the picture on the front page is an editor's choice. A reader may find such choices offensive if he or she is concerned with privacy rights and humanitarian ethics.

Can there be an ethic that will satisfy all groups involved? No. But ethics "is not concerned at all with what public opinion or moral matters actually happen to be, just as the scientist is not concerned with what people believe about the shape of the earth but with its actual shape" (Jones et al., 1969, p. 8). Yet photographers, particularly student photographers, frequently ask if an action during a specific situation is correct. There needs to be some method that solves the ethical dilemma.

To further complicate the issue, different philosophers and writers report different definitions of ethical behavior. Some definitions are based on an ideal derived from general moral rules. Other definitions are interpreted as being specific guidelines of proper ethical behavior. Different ethical belief systems with their guiding values, principles, and loyalties are discussed later in a journalistic context. It should be made clear at the outset that no specific course of action will be right for every individual and for every situation. However, confronting general ethical principles is the first step when evaluating whether the shooting and publishing of a controversial situation was ethical.

Study Hypothetical Situations

There have been few studies specifically related to photojournalism ethics. Brink (1988), Hartley (1983), and Wilcox (1961) sent surveys to a large number of students, readers, photographers, editors, and educators. Respondents rated the situations described in those surveys as ethical, questionable, or unethical. The problem with the surveys was that one never knew why a respondent made a particular ethical judgment. An action was rated ethical, for example, but a reader of the survey never learned how the respondent came to that conclusion. Are upbringing, journalistic principles, reader concerns, newsroom pressures, or ethical orientation responsible for a survey subject's decision? The answer is not known.

Several other researchers have conducted studies of journalism ethics. For example, Barney (Barney, Black, Van Tuburgen, & Whitlow, 1980) focused on journalists' ethical orientations, moral development, and dogmatism as possible ethical decision makers. Mills (1982) discovered that a number of journalists use the conflicting principles of the public's right to know versus an individual's right to privacy as contributing factors. Izard (1985) found that journalists take into account readers' reactions more today than in the past. Weaver and Wilhoit (1986) reported that journalists are mostly influenced ethically by newsroom learning, senior editors, and co-workers.

Values, Principles, and Loyalties

The first step in determining an ethic for the field is to determine the values, principles, and loyalties at work. A journalist must be able to define these underlying factors in the decision-making process.

Ed Lambeth (1986) in his book, Committed Journalism, identified the values that are highly regarded by journalists: Newspaper journalists give readers information for their daily lives; information is published to help readers make decisions; information gives meaning to a complex world; newspaper reporters make sure that public and private institutions work fairly and without prejudice; newspapers publish information that help enrich the culture for individuals; finally, newspapers publish information that helps others to distribute goods and services. These six journalistic values can be distilled, according to Lambeth, to:

* knowledgeability,

* usefulness,

* understanding,

* feedback,

* education, and

* entrepreneurship.

Lambeth also listed the principles that journalists stand by: truth telling, justice, freedom, humaneness, and stewardship. "Most fundamentally, the need is for a habit of accuracy . . ." (pp. 54-55). Truth, beyond all other principles, is the guiding guarantee for ethical journalism. The principle of justice is related to a reporter's preoccupation with fairness. A story should be complete, relevant, honest, and straightforward. The freedom principle refers to a journalist that is independent both politically and economically. A journalist should never compromise that independence by "the acceptance of gifts, free or reduced travel, outside employment, certain financial investments, political activity, participation in civic activity, or outside speaking engagements" (p. 34). Humaneness, as Lambeth (1986) wrote, is a principle that requires "a journalist to give assistance to another in need" (p. 35). Finally, the principle of stewardship is closely related to responsibility. A journalist is responsible for "the rights of others, the rights of the public, and the moral health of his own occupation" (p. 37).

Vague principles and values are the guiding foundations for the writing of professional ethics codes. For a photojournalist, the principles detailed in the NPPA "Code of Ethics" (see Appendix A) roughly follow the principles mentioned by Lambeth. Truth telling, justice, and freedom are principles covered by the NPPA Code when it asserts that "pictures should report truthfully, honestly, and objectively. " The principle of humaneness is mentioned when photographers are asked to have "sympathy for our common humanity." Finally, the stewardship principle is invoked when photojournalists are told that their "chief thought shall be to . . . lift the level of human ideals and achievement higher than we found it."

Loyalties, as Christians (Christians, Rotzoll, & Fackler, 1983) wrote, identify which parties will be influenced by it [a decision to photograph] and which ones we feel especially obligated to support" (p. 3). Loyalties to subjects, readers, society, the organization, the photographer, and the profession, need to be identified and weighed against each other. If a photographer, for example, is more loyal to him or herself, if he or she values winning contests, receiving peer acknowledgment, or pay raises over loyalty to his or her readers, that photographer is much more likely to have ethical problems.

In Approaches to Ethics, Jones et al. (1969) recommended that a person with an ethical dilemma first "ascertain the facts, sort and weigh the conflicting principles, apply partially indeterminate principles to the particular circumstances, and then, come to a decision" (p. 6).

Christians et al. used a variation of that ethical inquiry they called the "Potter's Box," named for Harvard Divinity School Professor, Dr. Ralph Potter. The box is used as a model for social ethics. For any situation, first define the circumstances as fully as possible. News values, principles, and loyalties that pertain to the specific situation are factored into the ethical equation. When all these considerations are within the "box," a course of action becomes more clear.

For example, suppose that the ethical dilemma in question is Hartley's (1982) first situation, "Klan Rally."

A photographer is assigned to cover an anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstration in a city park. When he arrives, a police officer is speaking to a crowd of newsmen saying it would be a good idea if they left. He says, "Some Klansmen are going to be staging a counter-demonstration and we're afraid the presence of the press will encourage violence." Some of the newsmen leave but the photographer stays. Violence does erupt and the photographer is later awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his images depicting the fighting. (p. 24)
The first step in the "Potter's Box" analysis is to define the ethical question posed by the situation. An ethical question might be: Should a photographer stay at the scene of a demonstration despite his presence possibly inciting violence? Defined further the question becomes: Should a photographer give up news reporting responsibilities because of the recommendation of a police office? Defined further still and the ethical issue becomes: truth telling versus law and order.

All of the news values mentioned by Lambeth, except for entrepreneurship are invoked. If the photographer stays, readers will know about those involved with the demonstration. Readers will be able to make decisions about the different sides of the conflict. Understanding of the two sides may help give meaning to each cause. Police officials can be monitored so that justice is served fairly by government officials. The community is educated as the grievances are voiced by its members. In the face of all the values just presented, it is clear that the ethical position for a journalist to take is to stay at the scene to report the news.

The next phase in the Christians et al. method is to analyze and weigh the various principles at work. A photojournalist should always tell the truth fairly and objectively. Following such principles, the clear decision again is to stay and cover the demonstration.

Identifying loyalties is the next step. As Christians et al. (1983) noted, "ethical principles are crucial in the overall process of reaching a justified conclusion. However, in the pursuit of socially responsible media, clarity over ultimate loyalties is of paramount importance" (p. 6). A younger photographer's loyalties may be different from a photographer who has been at work for many years. A reader may certainly have a different set of loyalties than a reporter or editor. Loyalties help show why different individuals come to opposite conclusions about the use of a controversial photograph.

What loyalties are at work in the "Klan Rally" situation for a photographer? If loyalty is to the subjects then the photographer would stay at the scene in order to record faithfully the events at the demonstration. Another photographer would leave because participants may be hurt by the increased violence.

If loyalty is to the readers then the photographer would stay at the scene in order to inform them. Another photographer would leave because readers would not like a photographer who causes trouble.

If loyalty is to society then the photographer would stay in order to inform a larger public about conditions in the community. Another photographer would leave out of respect for police authority.

If loyalty is to the organization then the photographer would stay to prove that the newspaper is worthy of its watchdog function. Another photographer would leave so as not to cause problems for the newspaper.

If loyalty is to the photographer then the photographer would stay because the situation may get violent and result in dramatic pictures. Another photographer would leave to avoid any legal problems caused by additional violence.

If loyalty is to the profession then the photographer would stay and take pictures in a rational, objective and truthful manner. Another photographer would leave to avoid bringing disrespect upon all photojournalists if further violence erupted.

After a decision to stay at the scene has been made, values, principles, and loyalties alone will not tell a photographer how to take the pictures. For that answer, a photojournalist needs to identify the ethical guidelines he or she uses when covering a controversial assignment.

At a potentially violent demonstration, a photographer would probably use a 300mm telephoto lens and take pictures from a distance. Suppose, however, that a photographer is asked to photograph a protest rally for a political cause supported by the photographer. The photographer wants the protesters to look as complimentary as possible. At the scene, there are 10 protesters out of an expected 500. The photographer has two technical choices: use a wide-angle lens to show how few protesters are present or use a telephoto lens to focus on an individual who carries a sign. With such a technique, the size of the protest group in the photograph will be ambiguous.

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.

When Norman Zeisloft was fired (see chapter 6) for stage managing a sports feature picture, his executive editor, Robert Haiman said, "I believe that a photographer is every bit as much a first-class citizen in this journalistic community as any reporter. And there is one thing about the journalistic community which is more important than in any other community and that is the obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" (cited in Gordon, 1981, p. 34). Truthfulness is high on any ethical list of principles.

As John Hulteng (1984) wrote in his book on media ethics, The Messenger's Motives, "One of the least enviable situations in the debate over what is ethical and what is not in the handling of news photographs is that of the photographer" (p. 154). A writer can observe a news scene quietly and anonymously and report the facts back in the newsroom. A photographer is uniquely tied to a machine-the camera. There is little opportunity for concealment, nor are hidden techniques desirable.

Six Major Philosophies

Another method used to make and defend controversial decisions is to rely on ethical philosophies that have been established for many years. Six philosophies are discussed here. Along with the six philosophies are quotations from working newspaper photographers that show how each ethical philosophy is supported by different individuals. The quotations come from a special report in News Photographer magazine titled, "Bibliography of Grief: An analysis and description of tragic situations . . . over the past 15 years" (Sherer, 1986).

Although no one philosophy can always explain a person's motivation in supporting or rejecting a picture, generally speaking, a basic knowledge of the six ethical philosophies will help a photographer learn of his or her personal perspective.

The Categorical Imperative, Utilitarianism, and Hedonism philosophies are usually used to justify a photographer who takes a controversial picture or for an editor who prints it. However, the Categorical Imperative and the Utilitarianism approaches are most often at odds with the Hedonistic, self-centered philosophy. The Golden Mean philosophy can often be used by a photographer when shooting the assignment or by an editor when deciding how to print the image. The Veil of Ignorance and Golden Rule philosophies are most likely employed to justify a decision not to take a photograph or print a picture.

Categorical Imperative. Immanuel Kant, born in East Prussia in 1724, was a great influence on Western philosophy. Christians et al. (1983) noted that Kant's Categorical Imperative means that what is right for one is right for all. Check the underlying principle of your decision . . . and see whether you want it applied universally. The decision to perform an act must be based on a moral law no less binding than such laws of nature as gravity. "Categorical" here means unconditional, without any question of extenuating circumstances, without any exceptions. Right is right and must be done even under the most extreme conditions. (p. 11)

Lambeth (1986) elaborated on deontological ethics, Kant's emphasis on the nature of an act or a decision rather than the result of such an act or decision. Pure RULE deontology is a form of Kant's philosophy that says there are universal rules that all must follow "regardless of the good produced" (p. 21). In pure ACT deontology, on the other hand, it is admitted that firm rules or codes are not always possible. With such a belief, a person's instincts become more important in decision making than logical reasons. Mixed act and rule deontology are compromises between the extreme harshness of universal rules and the idea that emotions should guide a decision. Both mixed act and rule deontology are guided by principle, but the consequences of an act must be considered as well.

Two examples of Kant's Categorical Imperative can be found in writings by photojournalists. Mary Lou Foy, former NPPA national secretary, invokes Kant when she admitted, "I think religious services should be off limits . . . for funerals" (cited in Sherer, 1986, p. 27). For her, a universal rule of not adding grief to family members during a funeral allows her to ban all photographers in all such situations. Although her major concern is not to add additional suffering to a victim's family, a Golden Rule influence, her unequivocal ban on all such photography sides her with the Categorical Imperative philosophy. Conversely, David Nuss of the Statesman-Journal in Salem, Oregon wrote that a newspaper's role is to cover the news, "and sometimes that involves situations where there is also an issue of taste, judgment, and the right to privacy" (cited in Sherer, 1986, pp. 28, 30). For Nuss, the principle of reporting the news is a universal rule that must not be broken, regardless of the consequences.

Utilitarianism. A popular ethical belief used by journalists is the philosophy of Utilitarianism outlined by British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Mill. Utilitarianism is the belief that tries to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people. A person wants to "maximize value or minimize loss" (cited in Christians et al., 1983, p. 13). In Utilitarianism, "various consequences are considered and the impact of the consequences of one action is weighed in relation to the consequences of another course of action" (Steele, 1987, pp. 10- 11). Christians et al. (1983) use the Watergate scandal as an example. Reporting the story was certainly not beneficial to President Nixon, but the "overall consequences were of value to a great many people" (p. 13).

Reporters and photographers most likely use Utilitarianism when they justify complaints from readers who object to pictures of gruesome accidents with phrases such as, "People will drive more safely." A gripping interview with an accident victim is justified with, "Interviews act as a cathartic release for those under stress" (Steele, 1987, pp. 10- 11). Peter Haley of the Journal-American in Bellevue, Washington and Gary Haynes, assistant managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, use Utilitarianism to justify the publishing of gruesome accident photographs. About a series of drowning pictures Haley wrote, "at least a few parents could be moved by the photo to better train their children in water safety." Haynes wrote of Stan Forman's picture of victims of a fire escape collapse (see chapter 4) with, "and in some cities [where the photographs were published], codes were quietly reviewed . . . to be certain Boston's tragedy couldn't be repeated locally" (cited in Sherer, 1986, p. 28).

When a drowning victim's photographs were printed in a small-town newspaper, the journalists involved probably used the Utilitarianism philosophy to justify publication after a storm of protest was received by readers. The photographer "pointed out that his photos are under study . . . by the local fire department . . . with an eye toward improving swift-water rescue techniques."

Editors expressed the belief "that the paper's photo coverage has made . . . residents much more mindful of the area's hazards than mere words could have." And the executive editor "plans to promote better relations between the paper and the public with a series of columns he will write . . . explaining how and why certain editorial judgments are made" (Moore, 1978, p. 54). Seeing the drowning pictures on the front page of the local newspaper may have upset the victim's family, but from their publication and the controversy that surrounded them, many positive outcomes for many persons occurred.

Hedonism. Hedonism, unfortunately, has gained in popularity in recent years. Hedonism comes from the Greek word for pleasure and is closely related to the philosophies of Nihilism and Narcissism. Aristippus, who died in Athens in 366 B.C., a student of Socrates, was the founder of the ethics of pleasure. Aristippus believed that persons should "Act to maximize pleasure now and not worry about the future." Aristippus, however, referred to pleasures of the mind-intellectual pleasures. "While he believed that men should dedicate their lives to pleasure, he also believed that they should use good judgment and exercise self-control." His famous phrase is: I possess, I am not possessed. Modem usage of the Hedonism philosophy, however, has ignored his original intent. Phrases such as, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die," "Live for today," and "Don't worry-Be happy," are present examples of the Hedonism philosophy (Edwards, 1979, pp. 24).

Dr. George Padgett, assistant professor of communication at Illinois State University, is sure of the motivation for printing graphically violent images. "They were printed," wrote Padgett, "for no other reason than that they were sensational and would sell newspapers-the same reason the supermarket tabloids give their readers a steady diet of Siamese twins and babies with three legs" ("Tasteless breach," 1986, p. 27). Roy Clark (1987), instructor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, disagrees with Padgett's explanation. "The real reasons for publication of these photos," wrote Clark, "are not economic, but aesthetic. They involve questions of personal ambition and peer approval. The photographer desires to get his or her best work, a memorable photo, on the front page" (p. D- 1). Both explanations describe Hedonism as the justifying philosophy.

Golden Mean. Aristotle's Golden Mean philosophy refers to finding a middle ground, a compromise between two extreme points of view or actions. Formulated around the 4th Century B.C. in Greece, taking the middle way does not involve a precisely mathematical average, but is an action that approximately fits that situation at the time. As Christians et al. (1983) wrote, "The mean is not only the right quantity, but at the right time, toward the right people, for the right reason, and the right manner" (pp. 9-10).

In a funeral situation, an uncomfortable assignment for a photographer, one extreme action might be for a photographer to walk boldly up to the grieving family during the service, shoot with a wide-angle lens, motor drive, electronic flash, and leave without a thought of adding to the family's discomfort. The opposite extreme might be a photographer who is so concerned for the family that he or she refuses to take any pictures during the service. Such a photographer might even refuse to go to the site of the service against the wishes of the editor.

Although Mary Lou Foy personally believes that all funerals should be off limits to photographers, such news events sometimes need to be covered. She recommended the Aristotelian point of view when photographs of grieving victims at a funeral need to be taken. She wrote:

Photographers must dress as if attending the funeral. When you get the assignment the day before, contact the family or close friend to let them know you are coming. Be early. If for some reason the family allows you to be up close and you are photograph ing tears, etc., for heaven's sake, pick your shots and don't unload with a motordrive. Whether or not you get up-close permission, don't forget that the pictures showing sorrow and grief can be made at many places, and often far away. (cited in Sherer, 1986, p. 26)
The Golden Mean most often demands that the photographer find a less obtrusive way of covering the sensitive news event.

For an editor who is faced with the decision of how to print a funeral picture, one extreme would be to print the photograph large and on the front page. The opposite extreme would be to not print the picture. An editor who used the Golden Mean philosophy would most likely decide to print the picture small and on an inside page.

The following two philosophies, Veil of Ignorance and Golden Rule, are usually used to argue against the taking and printing a controversial image by photographers, editors, subjects, and readers.

Veil of Ignorance. In his book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls (197 1) outlined the Veil of Ignorance philosophy where all members are equal. There are no advantages for any one class of people when all are reduced to their basic position in life. Seeing everyone through a veil, without noticing age, race, sex, and so on maintains "basic respect for all humans . . ." (Christians et al., 1983, p. 16). In practical terms, a photographer tries to imagine what it would be like to be the subject of the photographs. Steele (1987) noted that "by transferring roles, an individual is forced to consider values and loyalties from perspectives other than his own as a photojournalist" (p. 10).

Rawls' "shoe on the other foot" approach can be found from Jim Gehrz of the Worthington Daily Globe, of Worthington, Minnesota. In his letter to News Photographer magazine titled "How Would I Feel?" Gehrz wrote, "we are placed in an awkward position where we must make photographs of people who are under great stress. . . . My approach is to ask myself how I would feel if I were the person being photographed? If the answer is unacceptable, I look for a different way to tell the story in my photo" (cited in Sherer, 1986, p. 28).

Golden Rule. The Golden Rule philosophy teaches persons to "love your neighbors as yourself. " From the Judeo-Christian tradition, a photographer should be as humane as possible to try to protect subjects from harm inflicted by photographic coverage. "Love," according to Christians et al. (1983), "is personal, dutiful, but never purely legalistic" (p. 16). Jay Mather, who won a 1979 Pulitzer Prize wrote simply, "Human kindness has always been an effective and impartial editor" (cited in Sherer, 1986, p. 25).

Being aware that the different ethical philosophies are the basis for the values, principles, and loyalties upheld by a professional code of ethics will help photographers come to a decision. The reason thoughtful photographers, editors, subjects, and readers disagree over the same picture is that each person bases their decision on a different philosophy. Those who side with the Categorical Imperative, Utilitarianism, or Hedonism philosophies will never agree with those who base their decisions on the Veil of Ignorance or the Golden Rule philosophies.

Whether you take a picture during a controversial situation or whether you print a controversial image by one of your photographers is often a matter of which major philosophy is your prime concern. A picture of a father grieving over the death of his son killed in a traffic accident touches many philosophical bases. It is a strong, news situation-Categorical Imperative. It might make people drive more safely-Utilitarianism. It might win an award-Hedonism. It should be published in an inside page-Golden Mean. It might remind you of your own son-Veil of Ignorance. It might add to the father's grief if it is published-Golden Rule.

Occasionally, there is blurring between the various philosophies. You may not want the picture to run large on the front page because it might add to the father's grief-Golden Mean and Golden Rule. You may not want to publish the picture at all. You may think people crying should never be the subject of news photography because such images upset readers-Categorical Imperative and Golden Rule. You may feel the picture is a good news photo and might make people drive more carefully, but should be used small, and on an inside page so as not to upset readers-Categorical Imperative, Utilitarianism, Golden Mean, and Golden Rule. Throughout this textbook, one of the six philosophies is often attributed to a journalist's motivation. It is important to understand that there may be other philosophies at work that guide a decision that are unknown to the author.

A photojournalist's job is to capture the news-not make it and not run from it. Sometimes, but fortunately not often, that mission runs afoul of the readers' level of sensitivity. As Jay Mather wrote, "When a reader's visual diet is composed of benign features, routine sports pictures and carefully controlled graphic illustrations, it's easy to see why the sudden confrontation with a hard news photograph promotes such virulent responses" (cited in Sherer, 1986, p. 25).

According to a survey conducted by Beverly Bethune (1983), an associate professor at the University of Georgia, when photographers in a national survey were asked, "What kinds of assignments do news photographers shoot most often?" hard news was at the bottom of the list. Only 12% of the photographers reported that more than about a third of their assignments could be called hard news. Nevertheless, news assignments are the ones that cause the most ethical problems.

The price of being responsible for the documentation of life in all its gloriously happy and tragically sad moments is that if some people do not like what they see, they will question a photojournalist's moral character. That reaction, however, is a necessary barometer of a photojournalist's ethics. It is a photographer's moral responsibility that the decision to take pictures is based on sound personal ethics that can be justified to all who disagree. Study hypothetical situations, know the values, principles, and loyalties that are a part of journalistic principles, and be familiar with the six major philosophies. With such a strong foundation, you will be better able to act decisively during a controversial situation.