Chapter Eight
Juggling journalism and Humanism


Paul Martin Lester

Photojournalism An Ethical Approach

(c) 1999


In the October 1989 issue of FineLine, editor Robin Hughes (1989) described a news picture that sparked controversy at the Louisville Courier-Journal. In "Anatomy of a Newspaper's Decision," Hughes reported editor and reader reactions to a staff photographer's photograph. The medium-distance picture shows an unidentified victim of a shooting spree by a disgruntled employee of a printing plant. The gunman killed 8 and wounded 12 with his AK-47 military assault rifle before he turned a pistol on himself.

The picture by staff photographer Durell Hall Jr. shows a victim lying on his back with arms outstretched. The image had been described by an editor as "a photo that had to be used" and by a reader as "obscene." The newspaper received more than 580 calls and letters, most opposed to the picture's use on the front page. The victim's family filed a suit "alleging that the newspaper intentionally and recklessly inflicted mental distress on the family and that publication of the photo was an invasion of their privacy." Several weeks later the suit was dismissed.

Although not invoked by name, editors and readers used all six of the major philosophies to support their positions. C. Thomas Hardin, photo and graphics editor, most likely used the Categorical Imperative philosophy to defend his printing of the image. When Hardin saw the picture, he knew that it was "a photo that had to be used. In 25 years, I don't remember a situation in our coverage area where an event was so tragic or public." Hardin continued, "Coupled with the national debate on automatic weapons, the use of the photo was validated." Hardin used the journalism principle of newsworthiness. A dramatic, local tragedy combined with a national concern for gun control, compels the editor to use the picture.

The Utilitarianism philosophy was probably voiced by the editor and two readers as a justification for printing the disturbing picture. Editor David Hawpe said that one of the reasons the picture was published was "the need to confront readers in our community with the full consequences of gun violence." Don Frazier, president of the Graphics Communications International Union, called the picture "obscene" and "was shocked to see it." he later conceded that "maybe the picture did raise the consciousness of some about gun violence like [the editor] said he meant to do." A widow of one of the victims wrote, "I would want people to remember that my husband died violently- senselessly-and I don't want anyone to forget it." All three positions indicated that the public at large is served by the picture's powerful message.

Editors could have selected a less graphically violent picture for the front page, a largely Golden Mean position. Instead, the Categorical Imperative philosophy most often prevailed. "The photo did what I wanted it to do by showing the reality of what assault weapons are capable of," said Hawpe. "A less graphic photograph would not have been as effective."

Readers opposed to the picture were just as sure that their positions were correct. The Veil of Ignorance was probably invoked by a caller who asked, "How would you feel if it was your relative's body?" Most readers used the Golden Rule philosophy. One caller said, "Showing a body is in bad taste and insensitive to the victim's family and friends." Another man said, "I kept thinking what's this going to do to his family? Why did they have to show his face? They could at least put a shirt or a sheet over him."

Hawpe admitted that some callers "thought we ran the photo just to sell newspapers." Such a reaction comes from believing the publisher is guided only by Hedonistic concerns.

The editors should have known that reader protests would be harsh. Six of the requirements for a reader firestorm, detailed in chapter 4, had been met. The picture came from a staff photographer, was a local story, was printed on the front page, in the morning paper, and showed the victim's physically traumatized body.

Your own reaction to the photograph depends on your own ethical orientation. You might think that the picture is an example of hard-hitting journalism and tells the story well. On the other hand, you may feel that the photograph is much too gruesome to be published in a newspaper. Which reaction is correct?


A photojournalist who believes in the principles of telling the truth, objectivity, and newsworthiness will take pictures at the scene no matter how gruesome the subject matter may be. If a journalist relies on professional principles alone, however, there is a danger that a subject might be exploited.

A photojournalist who believes that victims of violence should be left to bear their grief privately without the prying eye of a camera's lens will not take pictures at a funeral or accident scene. If a journalist relies solely on humanistic concerns, however, readers will be denied information that is perhaps in their interest to know.

A photojournalist who believes that the sensitivity of readers should be a first consideration will not publish such pictures. Newspaper readers never complain about gruesome pictures that are not published. However, a journalist runs the risk of filling the publication with "happy talk" features.

An exploration of a photographer's ethical philosophy helps to decide the best course of action during a controversial assignment. Unfortunately, a survey of editors and reporters found that out of 153 respondents, only one referred to a "formal system of ethics outside the profession-Christianity" when responding to ethical situations (Mills, 1983).

Stress Results in Burnout

A photographer who shoots too many stressful assignments that conflict with an ethical philosophy runs the risk of catching career burnout. About 14 photographers were included in a survey of Ohio journalists. More than 36% of the 252 journalists sampled "had suffered from burnout, either at present or in the past" (Endres, 1988, P. 9).

Many excellent and caring photographers have left the profession because of job-related stress. In a News Photographer article, Jerry Gay, a 1975 Pulitzer Prize award winner said that there is a need for balance in a photographer's life. A photographer concerned only for the next award-winning picture becomes, according to Gay, "insensitive to other people and their feelings, especially at home. 'They stop being people and start being as mechanical as their winder' " (Hertzberg, 1979, p. 12).

Editors and photographers should work together to reduce one cause of stress-contests. The importance of photographic competitions for raises and promotions should be greatly reduced. A monthly clip contest in which first, second, and third places are chosen without points being awarded would relieve much of the stress associated with traditional contests. Such a contest would award a photographer's effort and let others know what content is most respected by members of the profession.

In other fields, job stress receives ample publicity with company-sponsored support programs. The NPPA and media organizations should recognize the problems that come from stress and offer support groups to all journalists.

If a particular assignment violates a photographer's ethical code, photographers should have the right to bow out gracefully. Some shooters are best at taking sports or feature assignments. Other photographers have worked for the coroner's office and enjoy driving around town listening to the squawk of a police and fire radio scanner. A photographer should not have to cover an assignment that makes him or her uncomfortable. No reasonable editor will force a photographer to take a picture that is against a photographer's ethical philosophy. Such a statement should be a part of the NPPA Code of Ethics.


When photographers and editors are asked to list their ethical concerns for the future, a dominant issue is the manipulation of subjects or images through computer, stage managing, or darkroom techniques. If a documentary photograph is altered through computer or more ordinary means, or if a subject is stage managed by the photographer, the publication has a responsibility to its readers to inform them of the manipulation. Computer manipulation cannot be detected by an unsuspecting and trusting public. A photojournalist who believes in high ethical standards will not manipulate a subject even slightly. For once a minor manipulation occurs, ethical principles fall like a house of cards. Soon the photographer will justify writing words on feet, double printing, lying about a subject's location, and moving pyramids.


In the journalism profession, unlike the legal or medical professions, there is a problem of enforcement. Although a photographer is often criticized and sometimes fired for a blatantly unethical violation, he or she cannot be barred from the profession. The NPPA should have a committee for the ethics of photojournalism. The committee would sponsor research, publications, lectures and workshops that would help spread positive ethical behavior. The committee could also investigate instances of questionable ethics with the power to censure offenders. An unethical photographer could be banned from entering the monthly clip contest for a determined number of months or even banned from the NPPA. The public could then be informed that such behavior is unacceptable and not representative of the membership as a whole.

The "Code of Ethics" that all members of the NPPA must sign should include additional sentences:

* No photojournalist will intentionally add to a victim's grief for monetary or award-winning gains.

* No photojournalist will intentionally violate a subject's privacy for monetary or award-winning gains.

* No photojournalist will intentionally stage manage a subject or use traditional darkroom or computer technology to alter the meaning of an editorial picture. No editor will use traditional darkroom or computer technology to alter the meaning of an editorial picture.

* No editor will subject a photojournalist to the pressure of forced contest participation.

* No editor will demand that a photographer take a picture that is against that photojournalist's personal ethical code.

The new ethics code should be printed and sent to all members of the NPPA. The time has come for photojournalists to re-dedicate themselves to ethical behavior by signing the new code.

Despite the renewed interest in ethical issues, there is evidence that the profession has a way to go. In a survey mailed to managing editors of newspapers across America, the respondents were asked to rank order the test elements given to prospective reporters. The top two test concerns were spelling and grammar. Ethical considerations were at the bottom of the list. Only 15% of the editors reported that "their tests contained material of an ethical nature" (Gwin, 1988, p. 104). Ethical issues need to be higher in the minds of those who hire journalists.

It is the duty of photographers with more experience to advocate ethical ideals to students and those new to the photojournalism profession. It is not enough to say that because ethical behavior is an individual decision, photojournalism ethics cannot be taught. Ethical behavior is taught by helping a photographer understand the underlying philosophies that shape a decision, by the ideals contained in a Code of Ethics, and through a discussion of specific situations.

The goal of a photojournalism ethics discussion is not to make right and wrong rules for every conceivable situation. Such a goal is not possible. Real situations are as complex as life itself and the responses are equally infinite. The goal is to help make sure that evaluations of photographers' actions are generally in agreement. When there is disagreement, the conflicting arguments should be based on sound ethical principles.


A photojournalist is a mixture of a cool, detached professional and a sensitive, involved citizen. The taking of pictures is much more than F-stops and shutter speeds. The printing of pictures is much more than chemical temperatures and contrast grades. The publishing of pictures is much more than cropping and size decisions. A photojournalist must always be aware that the technical aspects of the photographic process are not the primary concerns.

A mother crying over the death of her daughter is not simply an image to be focused, a print to be made, and a picture to be published. The mother's grief is a lesson in humanity.

If the photojournalist produces a picture without a thought for her tragedy, the lesson is lost. But if the photographer cares for her loss, is made more humane, and causes the readers to share in her grief, photojournalism has reached its highest potential.

Despite its frustrations and low moments, the lesson of humanity is why photojournalism is an extremely rewarding profession. For that reason, photojournalism is worthy of the best thought and actions possible by its participants.