10th May 2016
By Stefanie Chernow

AFP’s new guidelines: Ethical story telling and duty of care

Megan Howe

In April Agence France-Presse released a set of new guidelines on journalistic ethics. The new document is a rich resource of self-regulating rules covering everything from reporting mass shootings, use of graphic imagery, and handling user-generated content, to data mining, and cybersecurity.

Eric Wishart, former Editor-in-Chief at AFP and current Head of Special Projects, drafted the guidelines and the framework. Drawing on experiences and research from other newspapers, and media organisations, Wishart has developed an extensive document framed around key values of journalism. “The most important thing in all the ethics documents I looked at was accuracy,” he said. “The second one was seeking the truth.” He’s well aware that accurately reporting something that is factually incorrect is not enough; ethical journalists need to test and verify the information they receive.

He said his goal was to make the document relevant, taking into account advances in technology, but also to set out a framework for good storytelling. For the document to be useful it needs to be kept up to date, he says.

For example, in drafting the section on cybersecurity, Wishart drew on a conversation he had with a Guardian journalist who had interviewed Edward Snowden. Snowden had told the journalist that mobile phones could be hacked into and used as microphones. The journalist was obliged to place his phone in the freezer in another room, to protect his source.

Other sections include instructions on gathering and visualising data, using photos with children, and covering medical breakthroughs or inventions. Guidelines like these help protect today’s journalists from giving up their sources, and ensure information is accurately presented to the public.

Shock and Horror: Ethical Photography

Ethical pictures are just as important as ethical storytelling. Like his colleague Wishart, AFP Picture Editor, Eric Baradat, identifies accuracy as the key to good photography. “The most important thing is to represent the reality – what is really happening on the ground,” he says “then we look at whether we can tell the story without showing a graphic image. Finally, we look at the strength and newsworthiness of a picture.”

Baradat says pictures can sometimes represent a “landmark” moment in a global story; pictures like the body of Syrian refugee Alyan Kurdi on a Turkish beach or that of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing naked from a napalm attack during the Vietnam war in 1972. “Sometimes a photo stays in the memory of people and can tell the story better than you could in many books.”

In 2011, AFP photographer, Massoud Hossaini won the Pulitzer Prize for a picture showing the gory aftermath of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul in a Shia community. Baradat says there was a lot of controversy surrounding the release of the image, but in the end the picture reached out to an important audience, despite the graphic nature of the shot.

Although these shots are at times necessary, Baradat looks for ways to curtail the use of graphic photos. A recently released collection of migrant and refugee photos from the Mediterranean, read “WARNING: Graphic Images of Dead Children”, cautioning the audience. He refuses to publish photos that don’t give context to the audience.

His advice to other editors: “cover crises consistently.” Baradat says that small budgets can encourage media to cover a “peak point” in a crisis rather that the daily grind. In the case of the migration across the Mediterranean, AFP has photographers from borders of Syria to the camps in Northern Europe. This provides the public with the big picture of the situation instead of just focusing on its shocking aspects.

Duty of Care: Do you take someone’s photo or do you save them from drowning?

AFP’s new guidelines also address the harsh realities may journalists face on the job. Eric Wishart said he put the most thought into drafting the guidelines on duty of care. Although he said most situations are not straightforward, journalists do have a moral responsibility as human beings to help people who are dying in front of them.

Famed photojournalist Kevin Carter, who took the renowned photo of a starving South Sudanese child who was being stalked by a vulture in 1993, committed suicide just a year after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the picture. The choices he made in the field and the violence he witnessed as a photojournalist overwhelmed him.

The guidelines read:

Journalists often face the moral dilemma of either continuing their coverage, or assisting those who are injured or in danger. There are many documented cases of journalists helping people in danger.

Although we are deployed on the ground to provide news coverage we do not surrender our humanity. Whether to assist a person in need is a decision for the individual journalist to take based on the given circumstances and according to his or her conscience.

Despite the difficulties journalists face in the field, Wishart says, “The only thing worse than covering a war is not covering it.” Ethical guidelines exist to protect journalists and sources and to make sure the news is informative rather than purely shocking.

Wishart also says protecting AFP journalists is important. He says many desk workers suffer from worse post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than field staff. “Desk workers don’t have an interactive experience, they just constantly look at images. We have guidelines like make sure you are in a light room, turn the sound down, don’t watch it repeatedly, etc.”

Much of the advice on viewing graphic imagery used in AFP’s guidelines can be found online at the DART Center for Journalism & Trauma.