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Disturbing images: public’s right to know
vs. invasion of privacy QT18

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A 9-year-old girl, burning from napalm, runs naked down a Vietnam road. A vulture watches a Sudanese child, emaciated from famine, crawl across the ground. Two yellow-clad health workers carry a limp 8-year-old boy who might be infected with Ebola to a treatment facility.

What do these images have in common? They are all extremely disturbing, and they all won Pulitzer Prizes. 

While high school journalists are unlikely to encounter these extreme conditions of war, famine and disease, they do need to think about the ethics behind publishing disturbing images. When does the public’s right to know — and the potential benefit of exposing these tragedies — outweigh the emotional harm these images might have on the people in the photographs and those who love them?

If the images are taken in a public space, there’s no question the photographers have the legal right to publish. But, as we often tell our students, just because you can publish doesn’t mean you always should.

The highest ethical responsibility for a journalist is to seek truth and report it, but journalists must also consider the responsibility to minimize harm.

When does the public’s right to know — and the potential benefit of exposing these tragedies — outweigh the emotional harm these images might have on the people in the photographs and those who love them?

The answer isn’t for editors to set up a set list of what kind of images should or should not be published, but rather to develop an ethical process to help them work through the benefits and drawbacks of publishing a disturbing photograph.

When constructing a process for determining whether to publish an image, students should consider many questions, including:

  • Is this image important and relevant to the story? Is the image merely explotive/sensational, or does it have news value?
  • What makes it meaningful?
  • Will the audience understand the information conveyed without reading any accompanying text?
  • What story does it tell?
  • What story would others be able to get from that photo?
  • What impact will publishing this photograph have on the people in the image or on those people’s loved ones?
  • What impact will it have on the news consumer? Does the public’s right to know outweigh any emotional harm to the subject or the subject’s loved ones?
  • What, if any, warnings should accompany online content?
  • How would they defend the decision to run the image to others, including stakeholders and those directly impacted by the image?
  • Is there an alternative, better, way to show the story?

Advisers may want to set up hypothetical situations to allow students to practice this ethical process. Here are some scenarios to spark debate:

  1. During a soccer game, a student falls and breaks her leg. The photographer gets a series of pictures of the accident, including one that shows graphically the severity of the break with bone protruding and another that shows a close up of her face, covered in dirt and tears, as paramedics rush onto the field. In an article about the injury, should the editors publish one of these images? If so, which one?
  2. A student comes to the Prom very drunk and ends up starting a fight. The photographer has a several pictures of the flight, including ones from when the police arrived. In an article about the fight, should the editors publish one of these images? Why or why not?
  3. The worst happens — a student brings a gun to school and opens fire. Though, no one is killed before the shooter is contained, two students are injured. One of the reporters had a camera nearby and got the following pictures: a picture of the campus police officer running toward the shooter, a picture of one of the victims bleeding on the ground, and a picture of the shooter being handcuffed. In an article about the event, should the editors publish one of these images? If so, which one?

 

Guideline: Students should consider not only the news value of an image but also the emotional effect of the image on the audience. They should balance the public’s right to know with the privacy of the people in the image and their loved ones when considering publication of disturbing photos.

Social Media Question: Disturbing photos give powerful insights into tragedy but can be exploitive. How can we balance public’s right to know with potential harm?

Reasoning/suggestions:

Determining whether or not a disturbing photograph should be published requires a deliberate, ethical conversation among student editors. Once editors determine the image is not a legal invasion of privacy — taken in a private space where the subject had a reasonable expectation of privacy — they need to consider the ethics of publishing the image.

When constructing a process for determining whether to publish an image, students should consider many questions, including:

  • Is this image important and relevant to the story? Is the image merely explotive/sensational, or does it have news value?
  • What makes it meaningful?
  • Will the audience understand the information conveyed without reading any accompanying text?
  • What story does it tell?
  • What story would others be able to get from that photo?
  • What impact will publishing this photograph have on the people in the image or on those people’s loved ones?
  • What impact will it have on the news consumer? Does the public’s right to know outweigh any emotional harm to the subject or the subject’s loved ones?
  • What, if any, warnings should accompany online content?
  • How would they defend the decision to run the image to others, including stakeholders and those directly impacted by the image?
  • Is there an alternative, better, way to show the story?

Resources:

Presentation Slideshow: Photo Ethics: Disturbing Images, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee 

Ethics, Dignity and Responsibility in Visual Journalism, Jason Tanner, Human Rights for Journalism

Visual ethics guidelines, Principal’s Guide to Scholastic Journalism

Visual Journalism, NPR Code of Ethics

Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery, Newseum

Lesson: To Print or Not to Print, Journalism Education Association

Lesson: When Journalists Err Ethically, Journalism Education Association

Lesson: With Freedom of the Press Comes Great Responsibility, Journalism Education Association

SPJ Code of Ethics, Society of Professional Journalists

NPPA Code of Ethics, National Press Photographers Association

Photojournalism ethics needs a reexamination, The Poynter Institute

Visual ethical guidelines join online, yearbook ethics, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee

Audio: Using Images from Social Media, JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee Press Rights Minute

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