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The Responsibility of Photojournalists in Ethical Conduct

Photographing the news has a natural slippery slope of turning from documentation to sensationalization. Every time a photographer takes a picture, they are literally “framing” an event, showing a visual perspective of what happened. If this is done improperly or distastefully, the real value of the image can be lost in commercial sensationalization or completely misrepresent a factual event. The New York Times reported last September that Facebook officials said they shut down hundreds of accounts believed to be created by a Russian company that bought ads and posted anti-Hillary Clinton messages during the American election campaign. Some argue that this heavily affected the outcome of the 2016 Elections. While framing happens in all forms of media, journalism is clearly supposed to convey truth.

The responsibility of the photojournalist is to portray a true event in a way that is useful to society. Legally, photographers may take pictures of anyone or anything from public property with few exceptions. When it comes to matter of disrupting privacy, it is up to a photojournalist to work through the moral dilemma of sacrificing the feelings of the individuals involved for the greater good of society, without unnecessarily intruding. Documenting a sensitive event can and should be done with compassion and empathy and only when the event is justifiably important for the public to see.  The National Press Photographers Association code of Ethics says that employing ethical practices in photojournalism involve avoiding staged images as well. Visual journalists are trusted by the public to represent real events with their images- not manufactured ones.

Photojournalists have the opportunity to convey the truest depiction of events. In “Photojournalism The Professional’s Approach”, W. Eugene Smith, a Life magazine photographer was quoted in 1948 as saying that photographers could be given “poetic license” by rearranging objects for a shot. This was at one point a completely acceptable practice for photojournalists. Now, we ask when set-up is acceptable, or even necessary. Isn’t the point to show the event for what it is? The distortion that a photographer adds just by being present, without active involvement is enough to affect behavior in others. The effect of the photographer depends on the story being told by the image.

When gruesome or emotionally conflicting images with depictions of suicide and death come into play, photojournalists have an ethical dilemma. When a person contemplates suicide in front of another human, the seemingly clear choice is to talk them out of it or prevent it in some way. The question is in where the importance lies- the life of this person right now, or the effect of the documentation and dispersion of this event for society. Editors often make final decisions on whether or not an image will be dispersed, and in that decision the impact of the message must be assessed. A photograph can be incredibly powerful for the wrong reasons, like shocking and distracting readers. Just because a picture is grotesque or intense doesn’t make it relevant. Utilitarian ethical practices in journalism that focus on providing information that is critical to our society is the responsibility of visual journalists.