Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » What comments do you have for next ethics board meeting?


Here is the agenda for Tuesday's meeting of our ethics board. We welcome your comments on the topics below or anything else.

We also have discussed adding a couple of community members to the board. We'd want them to be people with some background in ethical decision-making such as a priest or a philosophy professor. Know any good candidates?

I. Sensational photos - framework for decision-making
  a. Last month's photo of immigrants dead in Fatal Funnel package
  b. Photo/video of driver involved in death of toddler at car wash
See below for additional reading material before our discussion. It's a
lot of material, but there won't be a quiz. Because of their power,
photos regularly attract strong reader reaction and lots of discussion.

II. Fighting the perception we favor the indicted city officials in our
Law and Disorder news coverage.
  a. Our editorial board has taken a position in favor of the indicted
four. Has our news coverage been fair and balanced?
  b. A news staffer was bothered by a video that showed the editor
laughing with the mayor at the courthouse. We live in the community. How
should we behave? I responded that I've shared a laugh with the DA, too.
Even so, if a staffer is worried about fairness, the general public may
have even more concerns.

III. Other topics?

IV. Suggestions for September topics?


Where do we draw the line in publishing graphic or disturbing images?
There is no one answer. No ethics policy covers every situation. A few

- The National Press Photographers Association's code of ethics.

- APME Survey: Readers Balance Compassion With Privacy When Considering Disturbing Images

- Beyond Taste: Editing Truth
In this article, photojournalist Kenny Irby offers some advice:

Audience should always factor into the decision-making process, as it is
the purpose of a free press to inform citizens and to maximize
truth-telling through authentic reporting, while minimizing harm.

If a picture is too gruesome for some audiences, a paper could decide
not to print it. Here are some other options to consider:

- Use an alternative picture. Simply selecting another picture should be
the first option.
- Cropping is an age-old and accepted practice. This is very much like
paraphrasing or adding an ellipsis in a sentence.
- Placement and size is a major consideration. Must the picture be
displayed on your cover and should it be published in black and white
and not color?
- Selective toning and de-saturation are options. You can adjust the
color and contrast in an isolated area.
- Blurring, black bars, and text can be placed in a selective manner.
- Distortion of the picture is another choice. That is, you can subtract
and/or add editorial content within the frame of the photographic
- Include written context to inform the viewer and reader about what
they are seeing. Captions, photo credits, content label, sidebar
stories, and editor's notes are great vehicles for sharing information
and building understanding. 

- When Disturbing Photos Run

- Should We Publish Shocking Photos? Ask Readers First
This is a step we could take if we created an electronic reader
advisory board.


Photo editor Frank Tilley, who shot the photo used in last month's Fatal Funnel installment, researched a few articles on the subject to provide background for the ethics board before our discussion.

Ethics in Photojournalism: Past, Present, and Future, By Daniel R. Bersak
Excerpt: "News images shape our culture in ways both profound and deep.
Those who lived through the Vietnam era cannot help but remember the
searing photographs that have come to symbolize that conflict -- a
Saigon street execution, a naked girl covered in napalm, a thousand-yard
stare, and so on.  These photos have woven themselves into the
collective memory of a generation.  There are some who would even say
that the mounting weight of photographic evidence was the primary cause
for public opinion to shift against the war in Vietnam, and hence
effected an end to the war itself.  As such, to borrow a phrase from pop
culture, "With great power comes great responsibility."1  Responsible
photojournalism means adherence to a standard of ethics."


In his book Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach, California State
University Fullerton Professor Paul Martin Lester outlines six ethical
philosophies intended to help photographers and editors answer questions
like those outlined above: 

1. The Categorical Imperative is a distilled version of Kant's notion
that what is acceptable for a single person should be acceptable for
everyone, almost like a theoretical "nondiscrimination clause."  For
example, suppose a newspaper editor is trying to decide whether to
publish an image of a partially nude young woman fleeing a house fire.
That editor should consider whether he would publish the image under
different circumstances - if the subject was male, or elderly, or obese.
The Categorical imperative says that what goes for one should go for

2. Utilitarianism as a philosophy attempts to weigh positives and
negatives of a situation, and maximize the good for the greatest number
of people.  For example, if gruesome photos of a car crash offend the
victims' families, but shock the community into driving safely, then by
Utilitarianism the taking and publication of those photos is deemed to
be ethical. 

3. Hedonism represents the "do what feels good" school of thought, and
might be used to justify printing explicit photos simply because they
are titillating.  Publishing a provocative front page photo simply for
the sake of selling newspapers would be an example of hedonism.

4. The Golden Mean philosophy concerns compromise.  If there is a less
intrusive, offensive, or disagreeable photo that still tells the story,
that is the better option.  The emphasis is on finding middle ground
rather than an all-or-nothing approach.

5. The Veil of Ignorance asks the photographer or editor to consider how
they would feel if they were the subject.  If they would not feel good
in the subject's place, it would be better to look for a different

6. The Golden Rule is sometimes phrased "love thy neighbor as thyself."
As an ethical philosophy it requires that a photographer or editor treat
his subjects as he would treat himself.11  This, of course, leaves
decisions subject to the photographer's, editor's, or institution's


Good decisions in tough calls
An excerpt:
Some photographs are highly newsworthy but so disturbing that you should
decide against using them or give them special handling.

    * Death and gore. Many editors have strong policies against
publishing photographs of dead bodies, body parts and bleeding victims
of tragic incidents. Discuss with your staff and readers what should and
shouldn't be shown: Is the whole body off limits? What about body parts,
where most of the body is obscured, such as by emergency crews huddled
over the body? What about a body covered by a sheet? What about an open
casket? What about a pool of blood? What if the person survived? What
extenuating circumstances might make you run a disturbing photo? If the
photo depicts heroic efforts to save the person, does that justify
showing some of the body? What if you can't see much of the body? What
if the incident was highly public?
    * Grief and fear. Sometimes photographers capture powerful,
newsworthy images that depict the anguish of events you cover, as loved
ones hear or await tragic news or as people watch their home burn or
watch rescue efforts. Even when these emotions are on public display,
these photographs feel like an invasion of privacy to some readers and
to the subjects. Discuss with your photographers how you should handle
these photos and what might justify exceptions.
    * Should you ask or alert the family? If you are considering
publishing a disturbing photograph, perhaps the family needs to be part
of the conversation, if they wish. You tell them why you are considering
publishing the photograph and tell them you want to hear their reaction
before you decide. They may not want to deal with you at all. They may
alert you to some family member's fragile emotional condition or
physical health. They may look at the photograph and find some comfort
in the heroic rescue effort that it depicts. You don't need and
shouldn't seek the family's permission to run the photograph. But if you
can't face the family and tell them why you would publish the
photograph, you shouldn't run it. And if the family does not object to
publication, you might note that in a column explaining your difficult
Consider the play. If you decide to publish a disturbing photograph,
be sure to consider carefully how you play the photo. Page-one play will
seem like sensationalizing to some readers. Sometimes it will be better
to play a less-disturbing photo on the front page, with cutlines warning
of the content of an inside photo. Or maybe the disturbing photo should
be presented online, with a disclaimer that prevents anyone from opening
it without understanding the nature of the photo.
Among the ethical land mines, of course, is the concern over live
coverage of the recovery of bodies. The television stations and networks
need to be exceptionally vigilant in their oversight during this stage
of the reporting as the recovery of bodies increases. News executives
should apply extra oversight to make sure that they have the chance to
make sound decisions on what video to show viewers. They should restrict
live coverage of the recovery of bodies and/or build in time delays in
the live coverage to ensure that there is time for proper news judgment
and ethical decision-making.


- How to tell story of the dead without offending the living