​Ethics in the News: Images of 2015 that Pose Hard Choices for Newsrooms

Stefanie Chernow

Journalists have a duty to tell the story, but that doesn’t mean they should publish every horrifying detail. Recent reporting of violent atrocities and terrorist activity has put the need to balance respect for humanity with media responsibilities to tell the truth as they see it.

It has never been easy but with the smartphones and social media almost every event can be recorded and broadcast virally. Journalists and editors are constantly facing the tricky question of when to publish and when to edit out the most violent and disturbing elements of a story.

To answer the question professionally, journalists must examine the context of each story to decide if the public’s right to know outweighs their responsibility to minimise harm.

As the Society Professional Journalists states in their code of conduct, “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.” Journalists should show sensitivity to those who will be affected by the news coverage; they must avoid pandering to lurid curiosity; and they should consider the long term impact of the their coverage.

Where there’s clear evidence of causing harm — such as distress to family members of victims of violence — journalists may decide it’s more important to respect their grief than to pursue lucrative clicks and increasing stats on Google analytics.

So far 2015 has thrown up some intriguing and difficult examples of where explicit storytelling has come up against the value of careful, sensitive reporting.

Was it ethical? 60 Minutes’ airs video of sarin gas victims in Syria

In 2013 sarin gas was used against Syrian rebels resulting in the death of more than 1,400 people. This is a horrific nerve gas which the mere possession of it is banned by international law. Two years later and with no one held accountable, CBS anchor Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes decided this was a story that the programme would not show once and walk away from. The team spent months interviewing survivors and gathering footage. On April 19th they showed a harrowing three-minute clip of people dying from sarin gas poisoning. Many were children, crying in pain, and overtaken by seizures before they died for their corpses to be filmed lying on the ground.

60 Minutes went out of its way to ensure the report did not appear as sensationalist. There was a warning at the outset that the report contained images not suitable for children. The story was published before the May ratings “sweeps” which starts on April 23rd to avoid the perception it was being used to increase the ratings. The journalists and producers took their time to make sure they could reflect on all implications of the broadcast.

In a follow up video Pelley was interviewed on the decision to publish the report and was asked “how much is too much, can we really show this on 60 Minutes”:

“I knew 60 Minutes would support this work and we wanted to show what is reality. We wanted the world to see what this was in all of its ugliness. It killed more than 1,000 people, more than 400 were children. You can read about that all day, If you don’t see it, I don’t believe the impact truly hits you.”

Was it ethical? Picture of dying woman in freak whale accident

According to iMediaEthics, Mail Online, the Mirror, the Associated Press and National Post ran a photo of Jennifer Karren, who died after the tour boat she was on in Mexico crashed into a whale. In an interview with iMediaEthics, Julie Traves, the deputy editor for National Post, said: “The key thing in cases like this is editorial judgment to determine whether anything we run – in print or photography – is using details of a death gratuitously or to move a story forward.”

In this case, there is some doubt. Why was the photo needed? It is an interesting story, but the story can be fully told without a photo which is disturbing, particularly for those who knew Jennifer Karren and panders to to lurid curiosity. Was this not publishing in the name of sensation and shock value?

Was it ethical? A black man being shot in the back by a policeman

Earlier in the month a black man, Walter L. Scott, in South Carolina was shot to death by a white policeman, Michael T. Slager, in an event that started as a routine traffic violation but thanks to a video of the incident taken by a bystander became a global news sensation. the policeman said Scott was fighting for his taser stun gun, and as he “feared for his life” he shot the man in self defense.

However, the video shows Scott fleeing and unarmed as he is shot in the back by Slager and killed. Nor did the police try to revive the victim as they claimed in their report and the policeman was seen picking up and dropping the stun gun beside the victim. The New York Times ran the video, much to the dismay of some readers. Within hours of the video being published – it was shown all around the world – the policeman was arrested and charged with murder.

The shooting and killing of a man in any circumstances would give journalists cause to think twice before publishing, but this incident has context. It follows the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, where a police officer shot and and killed a black man as he was fleeing and unarmed. Yet the officer was later cleared from the incident as a grand jury determined he was acting in self defence. Protests ensued which sparked a national debate as to if police are too quick to use lethal actions.

In this case, too, the video was released by the victim’s family. they believed justice would be served by making it public. This is a case where the video does not merely tell the story, but adds profoundly to the understanding of what happened. Without it, the public would never have known the true circumstances.

Was it ethical? Charlie Hebdo and the policeman execution

The targeted killing of policeman Ahmed Merabet by terrorists who struck at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, killing 11 journalists for satirical images of the Muhammad, was caught on video by someone filming in a nearby apartment. The terrorists shot the policemen then returned and executed him as he lay injured on the pavement. The video was spread instantly on social media and was picked up by several news organisations and many showed parts of the clip or stills from video, although few showed the moment of the fatal shot being fired.

This video was not produced by the terrorists themselves — so media cannot be accused of disseminating terrorist propaganda — but it raises many questions about how far media should go in showing the final moments of this incident. Some showed the terrorist about to execute the stricken policemen with the victim clearly recognisable; some pixilated the face of the victim; others kept their distance and only showed the terrorist rushing towards the policemen.

The victim’s family was opposed to use of the video. They did not want the incident to be used to promote the message of the terrorists.

It may be that those news media who reported the murdered without the video, or by keeping their distance from the violent end of the process and blurred the image of the policeman’s body got the balance right. Certainly, when this has been tested, media have been cleared of inappropriate behaviour. Sky News was cleared of any wrongdoings of showing the video as “the footage was appropriately limited so as not to cause undue offence.”

All these case studies illustrate how journalists and editors need to focus on context and the need to know when come up against questions of publishing news on violence. Above all, they need to consider:

  • How to tell the story in a way that gives clarity and understanding to the audience. In the sarin gas poisoning example, the report benefits from hindsight — it is years since the actual tragedy took place — and harrowing though it is, the footage explicitly illustrates why the use of this nerve gas is rightly classified as a war crime and a crime against humanity. In the cases of the Charlie Hebdo incident and the woman killed in a freak accident, the deaths are matters of fact that can be told without causing unnecessary anguish to the families and friends of victims.
  • How to tell the story in context. The video film of the South Carolina policeman shooting down a black man not only explains the story in a dramatic and honest manner, it resonates with a controversy in the region over arguments about black people as victims of excessive police force.
  • How is the public interest served? In the sarin and South Carolina examples, the graphic images used to illustrate the stories reinforce public calls to remedy injustice. In the other cases they are merely used to embellish known facts and they do not add to public understanding.

In the end, all of these stories place journalists on the spot where they have to make difficult choices. Their inclination will be to tell the story as effectively and as stylishly as they can, but sometimes they have to draw the line at showing material, such as pictures and visual images of violence, which might harm others, particularly children or vulnerable groups.

In an age where competitive pressures abound and when there is a rush to publish driven by unrestrained communications on social networks and online, journalists have to take their time and think twice before they press the send button. It’s what makes journalism different and ethical.


Photo: Flickr CC Robert Couse-Baker
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