Photojournalism Ethics Timeless Issues

Paul Martin Lester, Ph.D.
Department of Communications, H-230
Fullerton, California 92634
FAX: 657.773.2209


Book chapter for Michael Emery and Ted Curtis Smythe Readings in Mass Communication Brown & Benchmark Publishers (c)1995 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Photojournalism -- the profession in which journalists make news-editorial images for print and screen (television and computer) media -- is under attack.

Media critics and viewers question the use of gruesome images, dozens of photographers hounding celebrities, picture manipulations that present misleading views, visual messages that perpetuate negative stereotypes of individuals from various multicultural groups, and images that blur the distinction between advertising and journalism.1 What is happening? Nothing that hasn't been a part of photography since its invention in 1839. What is new, however, is the spread of computer technology that allows practically anyone to produce and disseminate visual messages in massive numbers for a world-wide audience.

Because images evoke almost immediate emotional responses among viewers, pictures have tremendous impact. With well-chosen words, visual messages combine to educate, entertain and persuade. But the flip side to such visual power is that images can also offend, shock, mislead, stereotype and confuse.

Consider some recent examples: Violent reports from a Miami television station, reporters camped out in front of O.J. Simpson's mansion, Olympic skaters and rivals Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan digitally altered to look like best friends, an African American cast as a Los Angeles rioter and a victim of AIDS used in an advertisement to sell sweaters. The stories featured above can be classified into five ethical concerns of most interest to photojournalism professionals: Victims of violence, right to privacy, picture manipulations, stereotyping and advertising/editorial blurring.

Victims of Violence

After a gruesome image of dead or grieving victims of a tragic event is presented to the public in either the print or screen media, many viewers are often repulsed and offended by the picture. Nevertheless, violence and tragedy are staples of American journalism. "If it bleeds, it leads" is a popular, unspoken sentiment in many newsrooms. The reason for this obvious incongruity is that a majority of viewers are attracted and intrigued by such stories. Photojournalists who win Pulitzer Prizes and other international competitions are almost always witness to excruciatingly painful human tragedies that nevertheless get published or broadcast. It is as if viewers want to see violent pictures, but through gaps in the fingers in front of their face.

When television station WSVN, Channel 7, in Miami lost its affiliation with NBC, it joined the FOX network and had to quickly generate high ratings in order to survive. In order to appeal to a younger audience, the station started specializing in gory crime news. The programming change was described as "a continuous barrage of the body bags on the street and the blood coming out of them." The content of the nightly news cast was so upsetting that nine area hotels banned the station from its television sets, lest out-of-town guests get the wrong impression about Miami (which backwards reads "I maim.") Complaints about hotel censorship from station executives were framed within a utilitarian context. As one television spokesperson said, "To mask crime stories would not be fair to the viewers."2 But to be honest, both sides presented hedonistic arguments based on a fear of lost revenue due to a decline in tourism or a decline in viewers.

Editors need to be sure that images of murder or automobile victims are really necessary to tell the story. Journalists often cite the reason for using such visual messages as a way to warn others of the dangers of modern living or to urge drivers to watch the speed limit. Another, perhaps more honest reason, is to avoid being scooped by a rival media organization. Despite well-rehearsed explanations, sensational images of victims of violence are shown as much for economic as utilitarian reasons. The media concentration on criminal activity creates an exaggerated perception of crime in the minds of viewers. Rather than focusing on bloody body bags, journalists need to explain the underlying social forces that cause such tragic events to occur.

Right to Privacy

Privacy concerns are almost always voiced by ordinary citizens or celebrities who are suddenly thrust in front of the unblinking lens of a camera because of connection to some sensational news story. Seldom do you hear viewers complain about violating someone else's right to privacy. Courts in America have consistently maintained that privacy rights differ between private and public persons. Private citizens have much more strictly enforced rights to their own privacy than celebrities who often ask for media attention. Not surprisingly, celebrities bitterly complain when they are the subject of relentless media attention because of some controversial allegation.

O.J. Simpson ran from defensive football players for teams in California and New York and over airport obstacles in Hertz car rental commercials. But when his mostly hidden violent personality was tragically revealed, he couldn't run from the media. With video cameras set in front of Simpson's mansion and in helicopters following his bizarre travels throughout Southern California freeways, news personnel were able to broadcast live his every move to a world-wide audience.3

Critics were divided on the media's obsession with the sensational double murder case. But the attention is easily explained. The story involved one of the most hard-fought and fragile entities of any society -- the celebrity. O. J. was beloved and respected by countless fans around the world. His fall from grace is at once shocking and extremely interesting. Such a story simply has to be covered. And part of that coverage involves the key and secondary characters that are caught in the media's story-telling web. When a news story is so compelling as to draw world-wide attention, a person -- whether celebrity or neighbor -- has a legal right to privacy that is defined by the height of the fence outside their house.

For private or public citizens, perhaps the most stressful news story is the funeral of a loved one. A guiding principle for journalists in deciding to cover such a story is whether the event is newsworthy. Newsworthiness is not determined by the number of cameras pointed through the gate at the cemetery, but a concept with roots to unemotional, objective and reasoned journalism principles. In 1946, the Hutchins Commission came out with a definition of news that still applies today: A truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning. Unfortunately, media officials under pressure from circulation or rating figures make decisions that sensationalize rather than explain complex stories of interest to the public. Live pictures for the nightly newscast of a speculating reporter in front of a brightly lit brick mansion increase the charge of sensational coverage by critics. In an ideal world, journalists tell stories in words and pictures that explain rather than cause a viewer to ask more questions.

Picture Manipulations

Picture and subject manipulations have been a part of photography since it was first invented.4 But because of computer technology, digital manipulations are relatively easy to accomplish, hard to detect and perhaps more alarming, alter the original image so that checking the authenticity of the picture is impossible. Some critics have predicted that in a few years, images -- whether still or moving -- will not be allowed in trials as physical evidence because of the threat to their veracity created by digital alterations.

Tonya and Nancy. Who can (or would love to) forget the Harding v. Kerrigan soap opera that nearly froze the 1994 Winter Olympic games? In the dead of winter, editors at New York Newsday published a slick cover picture of the two cold-faced skaters under a large headline, "Fire on Ice" and above a confusing subhead, "Tonya, Nancy To Meet At Practice."5 But the color photograph showed the two skating next to each other. Didn't they meet when the picture was taken? The obvious answer (at least in this context) is that the picture was a lie -- it was a composite of two different images manipulated with a computer.

Newspaper editors across the country published a condemnation of the computer technique. How dare Newsday use an altered photo for a news event?6 But lost in the criticism is the fact that the editors for the publication did everything they were suppose to do when turning a news picture into an illustration. For also on the cover in bold, black, sans serif type is the cutline for the image:

Tonya Harding, left, and Nancy Kerrigan appear to skate together in this New York Newsday composite illustration. Tomorrow, they'll take to the ice together.

In addition, a byline beside the picture identified the photographers of the separate images.

So what's the problem? Why was there so much criticism from fellow journalists? The answer is that admitting to a lie doesn't make the lie acceptable.

Cameras and the images they produce are naively thought by many to never lie. But because humans operate the machine, technical, composition and content manipulations are unavoidable. Computer technology did not start the decline in the credibility of pictures, but it has hastened it. Photographic darkrooms are quickly being replaced by computer workstation lightrooms. But as long as photojournalists do not subtract or add parts of a picture's internal elements, almost any other manipulation once accomplished in a photographic darkroom is considered ethical for news-editorial purposes.

Two factors may guard against a further erosion of credibility in visual messages: Reputation of the media organization that publishes or broadcasts images and the words that accompany the manipulated picture.

Credibility is not an inherent quality of a particular picture, but a concept based on tradition, story choices, design considerations and reader perception of the company or individual that produces the image. Reputation is what separates the difference in picture credibility between The New York Times, the National Enquirer, "CBS Evening News," or "Hard Copy."

Words are also vital in assuring the credibility of a news organization and a picture. If a photojournalist or art director is tempted to combine parts from two separate pictures to create a third picture, the reader needs to know that such an action has taken place. The cutline for the image should include the details of the manipulation while the image itself should be labeled an illustration -- not a news-editorial picture. Such an addition would at least solve one aspect of the ethical problem -- letting the reader know of the illustrative technique.

However, a larger question remains: In this age of digital manipulation and desktop publishing, why do computer operators feel the need to turn news-editorial photographs into illustrations? Journalism professionals need to face the issue of photojournalism images being replaced by illustrations and not concern themselves so much with the tool that makes that ethical problem topical.


African Americans are criminals. Latinos are gang members. Native Americans are alcoholics. Wheelchair-bound individuals are helpless. Gays are effeminate. Lesbians wear their hair short. Older adults need constant care. Anglos from the Southern states are rednecks. Homeless people are drug addicts. These prevalent stereotypes are perpetuated by images presented in the media. Stereotypical portrayals of ethnic, gender, physical characteristic, sexual preference and job-related cultural groups are a result of journalism professionals being lazy, ignorant or racist. As with the printing term from which the word comes, to stereotype is a short-hand way to describe a person with collective, rather than unique characteristics. It is easier and quicker for a photojournalist to take a picture of an angry African American during a riot than to take the time to explore in words and pictures the underlying social problems that are responsible for the civil disturbance. Critics complain that at best ignorance and at worse racism is the reason stereotypes persist. Racism may explain why mainstream media are slow to cover human catastrophes in remote sections of the world such as in Rwanda, Somalia and South-Central.

On April 29, 1992, four LAPD police officers were acquitted by an all-Anglo jury of unnecessarily beating Rodney King the year before. The surprising verdict sparked an orgy of violence, vandalism and looting never before seen in American history. More than 50 lives were lost, over a billion dollars in property damage was reported and hundreds of persons were arrested. On the cover of Newsweek magazine, readers were afforded a close-up picture of a young, angry African American man wearing a turned-around baseball cap and yelling while in front of a building engulfed in flames.7 Although dramatic, the color picture illustrates a problem with the media: African Americans are more often than not shown as criminals to be feared. Research studies have shown that magazines and newspapers publish few photographs of African Americans, but when editors do select pictures that include African Americans, they are almost always concerned with crime, sports or entertainment.8 In fact, most people from diverse cultures are shown as their stereotype and not as ordinary people with everyday hopes and concerns.

Many readers form their opinions about individuals from cultural groups from the pictures they see in the media. Editors should make an assessment of the pictorial coverage of under-represented groups for their own newspaper or television station. If biases are found, photographers, reporters and editors should attend sensitivity training workshops in order to promote more fair and balanced images. For example, to break the stereotypical sports coverage of African Americans, show athletes with interests other than sports. And to avoid reporting errors or omissions, have culturally diverse news-editorial staffs with experts knowledgeable about local and foreign issues and events.

Advertising/Editorial Blurring

With names such as "advertorials" and "infomercials," advertisers mimic the production cues of print and screen journalists to persuade an unsuspecting viewer to purchase a product. With full-page ads in newspapers and magazines that resemble news-editorial pages and 30-minute commercials that look like talk shows, corporate executives rely on the credibility of the media to fool its audience of trusting viewers. Most consumers of the media can easily tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story. But sometimes the distinction is so subtle, only highly observant readers can tell the difference.

In 1992, the Benetton clothing company was criticized so severely for using news pictures in their print advertisements that the campaign was ended. One startling image -- AIDS victim David Kirby on his deathbed surrounded by his grieving family -- produced a firestorm of media attention.9 AIDS activists denounced the use of a family's tragedy to sell sweaters. Media critics were alarmed that the photograph spread across two pages in a magazine appeared at first glance to be a news-editorial image.10 An unsuspecting magazine reader is briefly fooled into noticing the powerful visual message because of the perception that the picture is a part of a news story. Once the green Benetton logo and "800" catalog ordering telephone number where a clothes catalogue can be ordered is noticed, it is too late. Advertising and journalism have been intentionally fused into the advertorial. From that moment on, the reader may be skeptical of all the rest of the pictures and stories in the magazine. Credibility -- a priceless commodity -- is reduced.

With the case of the Newsday cover of Tonya and Nancy, the decision to manipulate the cover image was not made solely for an illustrative reason -- in a highly competitive, mostly street-sales environment, an eye-catching cover picture acts as an ad for the publication. If journalism professionals concede the cover or top half of a magazine or newspaper as belonging to the realm of advertising rather than news-editorial content, there will no longer be credibility for any other story, quotation or image within the pages of the publication.


In a rare exhibition of photo editing agreement, Newsweek and Time magazines presented a police mug shot picture of O.J. Simpson the same week on their covers.11 But the reaction from the public and media critics was vastly different. The controversial covers link all of the issues discussed above. Although the Newsweek cover image was altered (the top of the picture around his head was removed) to create a 3-dimensional, sensational effect, editors at Time were severely criticized for printing an artistic interpretation of the police picture in which O.J.'s features were blurred and darkened by computer manipulation. Typical of the response was N.A.A.C.P.'s Benjamin Chavis who said the image made Simpson look more sinister, guilty and as "some kind of animal."12 Although labeled on the contents page as a "Photo-Illustration," the practice of turning objective photographs into interpretive works of art is considered unethical by many in the profession. The artist did not intentionally darken the photograph for racist reasons, but editors should have been aware that many readers would come to that conclusion.

Photography is undergoing an exciting and challenging time in its history. Currently, the photographic medium is in a hybrid or transitional period between traditional film and computer technologies. It is reasonable to predict that by the first decade of the next century, photojournalists will no longer use film in their cameras or developer in their trays.

Print and screen media will also dramatically change as households are linked with fiber optic technology. Newspapers and televisions will be transformed into a medium that combines the best attributes of the printed page, telephone, television and computer. These stand-alone and portable teleputers (as some have called the new machine) will transform passive readers and viewers into active users with instantaneous links to text and images from sources anywhere in the world.

But no matter how the tools of journalism change, fundamental ethical concerns still apply. Displaying violent, sensational images for economic reasons, violating a person's privacy before the judicial process can function, manipulating news-editorial pictures to alter their content, stereotyping individuals into pre-conceived categories and blurring the distinction between advertising and editorial messages were journalism concerns in 1895, are important topics in 1995 and will be carefully considered issues, no doubt, in 2095. Professionals, academics and students owe it to their readers to be sensitive to unethical practices that demean the profession and reduce the credibility of journalism.

Therefore, it is imperative that whenever and wherever possible, ethical issues be discussed by all those concerned about the journalism profession.

1 See Paul Lester (ed.). (1995). Images that Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Paul Lester. (1994). Visual Communication: Images With Messages. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., Paul Lester. (1990). Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., and Paul Lester (ed.). (1990). The Ethics of Photojournalism. Durham, NC: National Press Photographers Association.

2The Times (London), June 7, 1994.

3 Los Angeles Times, June 16-18, 1994.

4 The first documented case of manipulation was the faked suicide of Hippolyte Bayard in 1839. The frustrated inventor made a self-portrait of his "drowned body" in protest of the French government's lack of interest in his photographic process.

5 New York Newsday, February 16, 1994.

6 Jim Gordon, "Death of a photograph," News Photographer, April, 1994, p. 4. Newspapers with criticisms included The Hartford Courant, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The New York Times.

7 Newsweek, May 11, 1992.

8 See Paul Lester, "African-American Pictorial Coverage in Four U.S. Newspapers, 1937-1990." Journalism Quarterly, in press or ERIC: ED349608 and Paul Lester and Ron Smith, "African-American Photo Coverage in Life, Newsweek and Time, 1937-1988." Journalism Quarterly, 67. Spring, 1990, pp. 128-136 or ERIC: ED310460.

9 Vanity Fair, March, 1992.

10 In fact, the first use of the picture was a black and white version taken by Theresa Frare and printed in Life magazine, November, 1990. The double-truck picture included a traditional cutline.

11 June 27, 1994.

12 James R. Gaines. "To Our Readers." America Online, June 26, 1994.