Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Director, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana
Paul Martin Lester, Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

What is News?
The Answer is Not Blowing on a Whim

If a tree falls in the forest, is it news? Of course not.

However, if a tree falls in the city, and ends up resting on the side of a house, it might be news. Whether it is or not depends on what else is going on that day, whether photographers or videographers are out on other jobs, and how quickly the mess gets cleaned up.

If a tree falls in the suburbs, as part of a sudden violent storm, damages a SUV, and injures a small child on its way down, in most markets, it is news.

A recent discussion on the NPPA listserv, in which participants debated the news value of traffic accidents inspired, for us, a philosophical analysis of all of the factors that play a part in determining just what tree fallings legitimately count as news and which do not. A recent decision by the Los Angeles police commission to suspend police chases resulting from minor traffic offenses, thus depriving local television stations and viewers of aerial coverage of what news directors called "breaking news," added to the grist for our conceptual mill. Besides crashes that resulted in deaths and severe injuries of innocent victims, one factor in the commission's decision was that some chase perpetrators were fleeing for the sole purpose of getting their 15 minutes of fame on television.

News is a mosaic of factors and judgments, some of which have to do with intrinsic qualities of the event or issue. However, many of those factors and judgments have nothing to do with the event, but rather the size of the market, what the audience has gotten used to seeing and what news organizations have gotten used to covering. In addition, the human, technological, and financial resources available to cover "the news" in a particular place at a particular time on a particular day are important factors. The ability to get and send high quality still and video pictures instantaneously has had a profound affect on what counts as news.

The job of the photographer or videographer in the field is to get the best pictures possible of the assignment, regardless of how that person weighs the potential news potential. Unless the story has truly evaporated by the time a journalist reaches the scene, there is always time back at the shop to argue for or against the publication of a specific shot or sequence.

But, news managers need to struggle before, during, and after making assignments to ensure that they aren't allowing the drama of the potential pictures define the newsworthiness of the event.

Drama, conflict, unusual events caught in process, and even mayhem are factors in determining newsworthiness, but they are not defining elements. Because newsworthiness is always based on a combination of elements, it is impossible to state an inclusive definition of what makes something news. However, we can offer two elements, that should not be taken as definitive factors.

1)The fact that something makes for a "hell-of-a good picture" does not make it news. A police chase down the freeway or the semi jackknifed across the road should not become news simply because the television station has a helicopter. Do commuters need to know about such events? Sure. But, an event more appropriate for a radio traffic report should not lead on the nightly television news or interrupt regularly scheduled shows for continuous coverage.

A classic controversy over a tragic situation occurred in Bakersfield, California in 1986. With a caption head titled, "A family's anguish," there is no doubt that the image by John Harte of the Bakersfield Californian of 5-year-old drowning victim, Edward Romero, halfway zippered in a dark, plastic body bag with family members crying and a bystander awkwardly reaching for one of the survivors, is a powerful and disturbing image. Under the outstretched arms and objections from a deputy sheriff, Harte made the picture with a 24mm lens from about five feet away. He admitted that the family scene was a "get-at-any-cost picture" and the most dramatic moment he had ever photographed.

But was that scene worthy of the newspaper's front page? Many readers didn't think so. The paper received 500 letters, 400 phone calls, 80 subscription cancellations, and one bomb threat. Controversy over the picture ensued as AP facilitated the picture running coast to coast. The conclusion about whether that picture was legitimately news mattered, ethically speaking. If the picture was, indeed, news, then the pain caused family, friends and even strangers viewing the picture was justified. If so, it was justified in the same way that publication of the pictures of the World Trade Center jumpers was justified-the newsworthiness of the event trumped the right of those affected to avoid additional pain. But, if the Bakersfield picture wasn't news, if it was different in important ways from those leaping to their deaths on 9/11, then the aesthetic quality of the image did not justify the pain caused.

2)The publication of news through pictures or text cannot be justified by claiming that the publication will prevent further harm. One argument used by those defending the Bakersfield photo was that the national publication of the photo reminded parents to keep careful watch on their swimming children. A similar argument is sometime used to justify gory pictures of traffic accidents. Empirically, the argument does not hold up. There is no good evidence that a picture of one drowned child has saved another. Based on the feelings of immortality that go along with being a teenager, chances are that a picture of this week's car wreck will not stop next week's from happening.

Sometimes good things result from news photos or stories. Sometimes they don't. Usually, there is no way of showing a true causal link. In the two months prior to Edward Romero's death, 14 people had drowned near the same location on the Kern River in Bakersfield. In the month following the controversy, only two drowned. Cause and effect or coincidence? There is no way to know for sure. The good news is that the quality of news reporting can be, and should be, analyzed independently of the particular consequence, or lack thereof, from a particular picture or story.

Journalists do have a responsibility to make a difference in the community that they serve. The difference that journalists should make is that events and issues are documented that would otherwise go unseen. Even with ideal equipment and personnel, not all events and issues can be documented, so the choices of what to cover, and, thus, what to call news, should be made based on what is most likely to be of use in a self-governing society. A journalist's mission is to report all the news objectively, fairly, and accurately. The profession can only improve in quality and stature if journalists on the scene and back in the shop are mindful of those they see in their viewfinders and those they seldom see, their readers and viewers. News is what consumers can use.

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