The ethics in photojournalism has been a subject for concern
The ethics in photojournalism has been a subject for concern for rather long time. Photojournalism is the profession, where photo editors and journalists make images carrying messages expressed through different media types, such as television and newspapers.
Often media critics and some audience representatives question some of the images, for example some of the celebrities photos, picture manipulations that show misleading views, visual messages that perpetuate negative stereotypes of individuals from various multicultural groups, and images that blur the distinction between advertising and photojournalism. The situation has been this way for ages, since 1839 when it photography was invented, however only recently the issue of ethics has been raised. In part the reason for fighting for ethics in photography lies in the massive spread of computer technology that allows practically anybody to reproduce, create and distort images and visual messages for a world-wide audience.
Pictures have the most power among all the message presentation types; they expect immediate response from viewers. 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.
When a gruesome photo of dead or injured victims appear before the public in either television or print format, most of the audience is offended and struck in some way by the picture. However, tragedy and violence are still the main emphasis of British photojournalism. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a popular, unspoken sentiment in many newsrooms. In fact, it is the truth, because most of viewers are attracted and mystified by stories of this kind. Photojournalists that won international, national awards and competitions often did so by presenting and explicit content material, expressing excruciatingly painful human tragedies. People want to see violence and tragedy but only if it happens to somebody else and is far away to only be seen on the screen.
When television station Channel 7, in London lost its affiliation with the host, it joined the violent news station and had to generate quickly high ratings in order to survive. In order to appeal to a younger audience, the station started specializing in gory crime news. To gain a new target audience, younger people the station began presenting brutal 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 news were so upsetting, that most of the hotel of the area banned the channel from its TV sets. 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.
Photojournalist and editors have to be confident that photos of automobile accidents or murder scenes are necessary to tell the story. Photojournalist often reason using the above images as way to warn audience of the dangers of life or to make drivers drive to the speed limit. But the real reason is probably slightly different: journalists need to stay competitive in the media market. In such way the images are used not only utilitarian but also for economic reasons, which has not been explained yet. Rather than focusing on bloody body bags, journalists need to explain the underlying social forces that cause such tragic events to occur.
Every person has a right for privacy. The privacy rights are the major concern of the ordinary citizen and celebrities who become the object of the visual massages coming with some kind of sensational story. In Britain, courts have been differentiating between private and public persons privacy rights. This way private citizens have privacy right much more protected and enforced by the system than celebrities who often are interested in media attention and so get it sometimes. Celebrities often sue media representatives for the reason of incorrect or distorted information but often loose.
For both public and private citizens the most abusive and stressful stories are funerals. Whether the even is covered in the media or not, journalist decide on the basis of how newsworthy the story is. 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 photojournalism principles. To the pity of many, photojournalists choose what to cover basing on the desire to sensationalize rather than to be objective and truthful. 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 have been a concern of photography since it has been invented. The rapidly developing computer technologies allow almost anybody to alter and manipulate the original image, and the manipulation would be very hard to detect and sometimes even impossible. Some critics say that in few years the courts will ban the use of visual evidence as evidence because of the threat of manipulation.
Tabloid editors across Britain published the condemnation of the computer technique. However, broadsheet newspapers still use photos for news events. 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.
Photography is going through major change in its history. It involves traditional film and computer techniques, and those are often rivaling for the first place. It is very possible that in several years, traditional films will disappear and digital photography will take the place.
Print and screen media will 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.
But no matter how the tools of photojournalism 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.