15th September 2014
By Stefanie Chernow

​Images of Journalism: Why Ethics Need to be Part of the Picture

Tim Frances

Image selection has always been a tricky ethical dilemma for journalists and editors, but in the last few weeks the complex issues arising from a number of high-profile cases have led to criticisms of the media from a wide variety of groups and commentators.

In particular, coverage of the shocking and brutal killing of freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as aid worker David Haines, has led to intense condemnation of some media from commentators over the use of stills and images from the videos in their reports. Some captured the scene just moments before the executions and displayed them prominently on front pages around the world.

Two major ethical issues were at play here: first, the responsibility of media to balance their desire to tell the story as vividly and as comprehensively as possible with their obligation to do no harm and to show humanity to the victims of violence. Showing the faces of the victims only seconds before their killing was, some said, extremely distressing for viewers.

Secondly, the media, by showing stills from these very well-produced films, may have added to the propaganda coup of the terrorists, who had calculated that their slick editing and production techniques would be rewarded by the multiplying effect of republication around the world. And so it proved. Were media who used the pictures seduced by the propaganda of a brutal but media-savvy terrorist organisation?

An article from the American Journalism Review captured just why the issue is so critical, reminding us that “in this case, a video was produced for the media, not by the media” and asking, as journalists, “are we complicit if we go along?”

These questions are likely to become more relevant as the crisis in the Middle East continues to develop, but across the landscape of journalism, how we use images is becoming a major cause for debate as the explosive growth of the internet and the widespread adoption of camera phones, even in less-developed countries, has caused a flood of new content spreading instantly across the globe.

The average citizen now has access to torrents of images and video that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago, throwing up new kinds of ethical challenges for journalists.

It’s not just these graphic videos that have drawn attention – following the shooting of Michael Brown by the local police force in Ferguson, significant criticisms were raised over the choice of images of Brown used by the media in reporting his death. Thousands of African-Americans and others took to Twitter to post photos of themselves appearing “stereotypically black” under the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

The suggestion was that media outlets would have chosen these supposedly threatening images and not the ones that they also posted of themselves graduating from college or attending their high school prom.

More questions have been asked, too, following the online publication of nude and explicit images following the hacking of dozens of celebrities’ phones and online storage accounts. Some media sources rushed to publish the photos, but most of them had second thoughts and back-tracked after facing a strong backlash.

When video footage was released of American Football player Ray Rice violently assaulting his now-wife, Janay, it was extensively disseminated by the media, leading Rebeccah Lutz, managing editor of the Tallahassee Democrat (herself a survivor of intimate partner abuse) to lament that “the violent act itself was difficult enough to watch, but seeing her exposed and vulnerable, not even able to cover herself, crushed me. She was powerless in that moment, and now the world has seen it.”

And in yet another recent case, the New York Times Public Editor responded to criticism over the publishing of images of sexual abuse victims from the Dominican Republic.

When the internet becomes like the Wild West where “anything goes”, it is the role of journalists to filter all of this content to ensure it is accurate and reliable, and to provide useful background to the story to help people understand its wider context.

There are existing ethical codes that specifically address image usage. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) code, for example, states that images should not misrepresent or oversimplify and calls for journalists to “be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.” And the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) has a list of guidelines for the publishing of graphic material.

But journalists need to do more to avoid unwittingly contributing to the spread of objectionable content, and to think more carefully about the hidden messages that the images they publish may be sending and how it may affect the objectivity of a story.

It can be a difficult ethical balance to strike between providing readers or viewers with all of the available information and avoiding becoming platforms for vitriol and violent imagery.

As the recent issues demonstrate, and as industry norms begin to crystallise around the issue, there are clear ethical lines that need to be drawn and that should never be crossed.

Further reading

Ethics in the Frame: Should We Show Slick Terrorist Pictures of Brutal Killings

Society of Professional Journalists – Ethics Code

Radio Television Digital News Association – Graphic Content Guidelines