“Ethics and Images: Five Major Concerns,” in Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach, (2010) Christopher Meyers (Ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, pp. 351-358.

Paul Martin Lester







After I told a new acquaintance that I taught at a university, I was naturally asked which subject. “Visual communication,” I answered quickly, “and mass media ethics.” I then braced slightly for the inevitable bad joke that always followed. “Visual ethics,” she replied, “sort of an oxymoron, isn’t it?” Fortunately, I was ready for my usual and equally weak comeback, “Well, I always have work.”

Because of the unique emotive power that pictures have over words, it seems that the link between visual messages and ethical behavior is more problematic in the lay public’s mind than stories and ethical dilemmas (although conflicts of interest between the political positions of media organizations and individuals and their editorial products sometimes get noticed). Consequently, still and moving images reproduced within any media are often singled out for criticism. Usually the disapproval is justified. Most media critics name five mass communications issues associated with visual journalism: victims of violence, rights of privacy, manipulations, stereotyping, and visual persuasion techniques used for commercially driven purposes.

Violent pictures sensationalize and distract readers and viewers from the story itself. The public is made to feel sorry for pampered and deteriorating celebrities when they are hounded by packs (ala curs) of photographers that hound them. Stage managed sources and digitally altered pictures stretch credibility to the point where “seeing is disbelieving.” Negative stereotypes of individuals from various multicultural groups are the norm and no longer the exception. And finally, visual messages blur the distinction between advertising, public relations, and journalism until the public cannot tell the difference between the three professions.

      The opening chapter by Elliott and Ozar, “An Explanation and a Method for the Ethics of Journalism” is an adequate introduction to the philosophical underpinnings that should guide professional journalism practices. Toward that end, the two philosophy professors detail a five-step systematic moral analysis (SMA) procedure that has a goal of classifying any journalistic action or non-action into one of four categories—those that are determined to be either ethically prohibited (actions that cannot be justified under any circumstances), ethically required (actions that meet the profession’s expectations of behavior), ethically permitted (actions that meet the required category and yet cause harms that nevertheless can be justified), or ethically ideal (actions that meet the required and permitted categories and prevent or avoid harms altogether).

      With only one category that bans an action by a journalist outright, to their credit their system is obviously weighted to allow journalists to perform their role-related responsibilities and keep the public informed. Stated another way, it would be an extraordinary case in which a journalist’s action is prohibited under the Elliott/Ozar standards. Such a moral system is probably a relief for most journalism professionals who would rather run a story than not.

      Interestingly, the only example in their chapter in which it is concluded that a journalist caused unjustified harm and should be considered ethically prohibited, is one that involves a photojournalist taking a picture during a spot news story. Once again, visual messages and ethics collide.

Perhaps it should not be a surprise that a visual message is singled out for criticism in the introductory chapter. Photographers and their products are easy targets. For centuries the visual media were employed either as drawings only appropriate for the margins of great works or as sensational, attention-getting tools to attract (mostly) illiterate patrons to public shows or the front pages of newspapers. Historically, then, images took their “place alongside oral culture as a signifier of underdevelopment.”[i] Perhaps not surprisingly photographers, especially for big city newspapers, were considered by many word reporters as lower class workers within a newsroom and degradingly said to be “reporters with their brains knocked out.”[ii] But as philosophers, critics, and educators began to take image production as a serious art, visual literacy gradually developed into a serious study with visual practitioners afforded a higher level of respect.

In their chapter Elliott and Ozar use a picture taken during a tragic news situation as an example of journalism wrong doing. Violence and tragedy are staples of American journalism because many readers are attracted to gruesome stories and photographs. "If it bleeds, it leads" is an undesirable rule of thumb. Judges of contests also have a fatal attraction. Pulitzer Prizes are most often awarded to photographers who make pictures of gruesome, dramatic moments.[iii] Milwaukee Journal editor Sig Gissler summed up the newspaper profession's sometimes hedonistic philosophy when he admitted, "We have a commercial interest in catastrophe."[iv]

Photographs have long been known to spark more emotional responses than stories. One ethicist wrote, "Pictures usually have more impact on people than written words. Their capacity to shock exceeds that of language."[v] Other researchers have noted the eye-catching ability of newspaper photographs. Miller wrote, "Photos are among the first news items to catch the reader's eye . . . . A photo may catch the eye of a reader who doesn't read an accompanying story." [vi] Blackwood argued that "People who either can't read, or who don't take the time to read many of the stories in newspapers do scan the photographs . . . ."[vii] Nora Ephron asserted that disturbing accident images should be printed. "That they disturb readers," Ephron wrote, "is exactly as it should be: that's why photojournalism is often more powerful than written journalism."[viii]

Therefore, it is often a journalist’s role-related responsibility to produce words and images that often disturb sources, readers, and viewers. But certainly, to do so that causes harm without adequate and defendable justification should be ethically prohibited.

The case study in the Elliott/Ozar chapter is briefly described as:

[I]magine a picture of a mother standing on the street, who is staring in horror as her house is engulfed in flames with her young children still in it.[ix]


      From a purely journalism point of view, this author’s first reaction to the above-described scenario is that the image must be a hell-of-a-picture if in one, presumably wide-angle shot, it shows the woman’s anguished face, a fire out of control, and trapped children inside a house. Nevertheless, aesthetics alone should never be the determining factor of decision-making in journalism but neither, it can be argued, should an initial personal and gut reaction to a photograph’s disturbing content.

      The two authors conclude that the image is deemed ethically prohibited and should not be published as it causes unjustified harm:

It is certainly legal to print such a picture, but one might argue that she has a moral right to be treated with respect and not to be objectified in such a moment. The pain caused by publication of that picture is not what she deserves. In addition, it is hard to think of how publication of this picture would, in any way, assist in promoting the aggregate good. Human interest stories promote human bonding, but human bonding often occurs through the sacrifice of an individual. The harm caused this individual (assuming that the picture is published without her consent), would not benefit her or people who might find themselves in a similar situation. People do not need to see this excruciating moment in this woman’s life to assist in their self-governance.


      The rest of this chapter will use the introductory chapter authors’ five-step “Professional-Ethical Decision-Guide” to determine if the image’s use can be justified despite the assumed harm to the woman in the photograph.

      Step One: Identify the courses of actions available to the journalist.

      Since the scenario begins with the photograph in hand, obviously the choice has been made by the photojournalist to take and make the picture available for viewing. Ordinarily, however, the first choice for a photographer arriving at such a scene would be to take a picture or not. There are many reasons why a journalist would not take a photograph of a spot news story. One of the most humanitarian reasons would be if it were possible for the photographer to help those in need of immediate assistance. As long as it were possible for the journalist to help, knows how to help, and is not told to stay out of the way by rescue workers on the scene, it is a moral duty of that journalist to render aid. After such care is given, it is professionally acceptable to resume the role-related role of a photographer and record the scene. Of course, a photographer might be sensitive to the anguish of the woman and decide not to record her image out of respect for her privacy. Another reason for not taking the photograph might be if she specifically asked the photographer not to take her picture. Although most news stories occur in full public view and it is legal to take such pictures in almost all cases, some photojournalists might respect the wish of the source and refrain from taking a picture. There may also be other reasons for not taking pictures: a camera might be defective, a memory card might be full, it might be too dark, bystanders might be in the way, and so on. However, technical problems, either from a broken camera or a lack of experience, are not considered part of an ethical dilemma’s decision-making process.

      Given the parameters of the authors’ scenario with a decision to take the photograph already made, the only actions available to the photojournalist are whether to turn in the image to the city editor or not.

      Step Two: Does the action fulfill the journalist’s role-related responsibility?

      A photojournalist is employed by a news organization for the specific purpose of providing facts in (mostly) a visual format (photojournalists are sometimes asked to provide caption information—names, titles, and sometimes observations and quotations). Not providing an image to an editor violates the contract the journalist has with the news entity. The only possible action that fulfills the journalist’s role-related responsibility is to give the picture to the editor.

      From this point on, the ethical dilemma is lifted from the photojournalist and given to the editor who must decide whether to publish the picture and how it should be presented to the news organization’s audience. In many enlightened news outlets when a potentially controversial picture is being considered, a photographer is asked to participate in a newsroom discussion that might include other photographers, the principle reporter of the story and other journalists, and the editor-in-chief and publisher, if they are available. Regardless, the final decision to use the image is, in most cases, now up to the editor and not the photographer. Therefore, the following steps in the “Decision-Guide” apply to the editor.

      At this point an editor has two choices: to publish the picture or not.

      Any decision to publish or not publish a picture should not be based only on the story of the day. Perhaps there is a larger context for this story that the reader should know. This house fire might be one of several recently started within the city limits. Fire and police officials might suspect an arsonist. Perhaps there is a problem with the electrical grid or natural gas lines within the city that are causing numerous fires. Perhaps no other photograph taken during previous fires were of high “decisive moment” quality as the imagined image briefly described in the case study. Perhaps the children and others in the house were killed or seriously injured. Maybe with high winds the house set other homes in the neighborhood ablaze and caused millions of dollars in property damage. Suppose the mother left her children alone in the house and went next door to drink in the neighborhood bar. Maybe there was a domestic argument and the estranged father set the fire deliberately in a murder-suicide plot. With such larger contexts for a news story, an editor might certainly be inclined to include this strong visual message along with a story on the front page.

      If the decision by the editor after consultation is to not publish the picture, the authors’ qualms about the scenario—the mother’s plight and the (assumed) negative reaction if she were to see her image published in the next day’s news—are alleviated (although who can say that she would not react equally negatively to a story about the incident).

      If the choice is made to publish the image, the editor must now decide how it should be presented to readers. The editor has at least 13 choices. The image can be published:

1.     On the front page,

2.     On an inside page,

3.     With only a caption,

4.     With a caption and a story,

5.     In color,

6.     In black and white,

7.     Large,

8.     Small,

9.     With other images in a picture spread,

10.  With an informational graphic,

11.  With a detailed description of covering the story by the reporter and photographer,

12.  With a warning for readers that an inside page contains an image that might be upsetting to some readers, and

13.  On the newspaper’s website.

      If this story were a “one-off” event, a tragedy, but not one within a more complicated context, an editor might be inclined to downplay the story graphically but still report it visually. The justification might be that the unusual nature of the strong photograph requires publication so that readers and viewers know in words and images the woman’s pain, think of their loved ones and make sure to check the smoke detectors in their own homes. In that way, the aggregate good is served more by the publication of the image than without it.

Step Three: Will the action cause potential emotional, physical, financial or

reputational harm?

Certainly, there are differences between running a photograph large on the front

page where it might be seen by many readers and non-readers (in paper boxes, for example), publishing an image on an inside page (where mostly those who have purchased the paper would presumably see it), or presenting it on the newspaper’s website (in which only highly motivated viewers would see the picture). However, it is difficult to determine if the woman in the picture or if anyone who views the printed image will experience the harms listed in this step. Additionally, how can it be determined if a “harm” is negative? For example, a reader who has a strong, emotional reaction to the image might be helped by the experience. The woman might be aided financially if the picture is used successfully in a court case in which damages are sought in a lawsuit.

Step Four: Is causing this harm justified?

For the sake of this argument, let’s assume that the woman is harmed emotionally

by the fact that the photograph of her anguished face amid flames and trapped children was shown on the front page of the newspaper the next day. Many times, and on a daily basis, persons through no fault of there own are victims of violence and consequently lose their anonymity. Some of the most important Pulitzer Prize photographs testify to the importance of documenting for the public’s consumption scenes that no one would seek to witness due to their gruesome, graphic content. Nevertheless, the images and the photographers who captured these tragic moments are praised for their ability to tell in pictures what words alone can never reveal. The woman, her family, and her friends may be harmed by the publishing of such a photograph, but such publication is justified by the simple fact that the public has a right to know what happens to their fellow citizens not out of prurient curiosity and not because of sensational consumerism, but because of the fundamental mission of journalism—to report and explain events that citizens need to know in order to navigate successfully through their lives.

Step Five: Which type is this action?

To not report even in words the story of the woman’s plight is ethically prohibited

as it cannot be justified by the standards of traditional journalism.

      Depending on the related news events that occurred before the case study’s description and any additional information about the scenario itself, including a photograph with a story somewhere within the pages of the newspaper is ethically required, publishing a picture on the front page is ethically permitted, and putting this news story within a series of articles that speak to a larger social and economic context either in print or on the website is ethically ideal.

      In the end, using the Elliott/Ozar SMA a journalist can be thought ethical after publishing a graphically disturbing, private moment of a woman caught in a horrible situation because, as difficult as it might be, the profession is charged to provide, at times, that kind of news visually.

The mission of a photojournalist, as is the mission of all journalists, is to report news

in a balanced, fair, and accurate manner. The profession can only improve in quality and stature when photographers care about those they see in their viewfinders and when editors consider the potential harm published images might give to those pictured and those they seldom see, their readers. Journalism decisions, however, should be guided, never ruled, by sources, readers, and ethicists.

      It is important to note that good, caring persons, both academics and professionals, will agree with Elliott and Ozar’s conclusion of not using the photograph they described and others will agree that the image should be used. As my father used to remark whenever there was a disagreement between two, equally valid considerations, “That’s why there’s horse racing.” The important point to make is that any decision should be made through a long-term, rational, systematic process and not a quick, subjective emotional response. The five-step analysis described in the opening chapter is an excellent method to use toward the goal of ethical professionalism.

[i] Brian Goldfarb, Media Pedagogy Media Cultures in and Beyond the Classroom (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 19.

[ii] Clifton C. Edom, Photojournalism (Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown, 1980), 26.

[iii] Eugene Goodwin, Groping for Ethics in Journalism (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1983).

[iv]Knocking on death's door,” Time (Feb. 27, 1989): 49.

[v] Goodwin, Groping, 190.

[vi] Susan H. Miller, “The Content of News Photos: Women's and Men's Roles,” Journalism Quarterly, 52: 70-75.

[vii] Roy Blackwood, “The Content of News Photos: Roles Portrayed by Men and Women,” Journalism Quarterly, 60: 710-714.

[viii] Nora Ephron, Scribble Scribble Notes on the Media (NY: Alfred Knopf, 1978), 62.

[ix] As a necessary disclaimer, the author of this chapter received a bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin with a major in photojournalism. Subsequently, he was a staff photographer for The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans. In 1977 he was asked to cover the site of a natural gas explosion that destroyed a home. While covering the news story, he took a close-up photograph of a woman looking in horror at her leveled house.