Category Ethics & Legal

The Story Goes On, the Story Goes Out

There’s a tie between first responders and journalists – they’re the most likely to head towards trouble spots in communities. To be there, to bear witness, to document and explain so others can be informed or prepared, that’s what journalists do.

When storms like Hurricane Florence hit, the best and worst of journalists comes out. The split between the visual and the textual in this News & Observer story by Booke Cain is … stunning.

Cain writes about the efforts of local journalists to keep their communities informed while the image is of a television news crew wandering out into the surf or, optimistically, being surprised by a wave.

Yes, journalists need to be there. No, they should never put themselves or others in danger.

Colorado Journalist Detained by Police for Recording from a Public Place

After stopping to investigate police activity, Susan Greene was told to stop recording because it would be a HIPAA violation. When she refused, she was handcuffed and put in the back seat of a police car and then released.

Some things to unpack here … Greene was in a public place as were the police so there is no expectation of privacy there. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act only applies to medical professionals. And by detaining and then releasing her, they prevented her from doing her job. Even with no charges being filed, this was effectively a case of prior restraint by a government official.

What’s Newsworthy?

The visual coverage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt has fascinated me for years. Stricken with polio, he was mostly unable to walk without either physical or mechanical assistance, yet the journalists of the time almost never recorded that fact.

It’s perhaps one of the greatest ethical discussions on how we cover those in power – what matters, what doesn’t and what’s the effect of that coverage.

Polio, as a physical ailment, had no impact on his intellectual abilities and, therefore, no impact on his ability to do the work required of being president. But how would the general public have responded? Would they have been able to understand that the damage to his legs had no impact on his ability to lead?

The decision not to film or photograph was, I think, an ethical choice. Journalists collect massive amounts of information, assess it, analyze it, vet it, contextualize it and then publish it. Part of that assessment is understanding what the reaction to it will be, that understanding of your audience is a critical part of the process.

This comes up as nearly 90 minutes of unseen silent films of President Roosevelt are about to be released. Michael Ruane of the Washington Post touches on the issue in the video there, worth a watch.

Food for Thought

World Press Photo has given control of their Instagram account to Alessio Mamo. Mamo won an award in the last contest and the image he posted is from a new project looking at poverty and food issues in India. This was sent to me by Katy Culver, director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics and it raised my eyebrows significantly.

First, I’m not sure this falls into the realm of journalism (or at least our American vision of journalism). This segment of the description was really troubling to me:

These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table.

That last phrase – “I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table” – that’s not journalism. That’s staging, that’s giving direction. Do we pose people in portraits? Yes, we do, to help them tell their story. But this is going a step further – it is not an image about these particular people, they are being used as props.

The comments, both on the World Press Photo feed and Mamo’s original posting, are telling. As of my writing, the post has more than 15,000 likes on Instagram but the written comments use phrases like shameful, horribly offensive, repulsive, exploitive and “completely devoid of any sort of sensitivity or understanding.”

That dichotomy – 15,000 likes and highly critical comments – are one place to start a discussion on the value of social media. Are all those likes because people like the image/execution/idea? Or because it was posted on the World Press Photo feed? Do they like what several commenters referred to as “poverty porn?”

There’s also the question of how we balance the ability to illustrate a story and the need to document an issue. Is this image being used to tell the story of the people in it? Or are they being used as an example of a larger issue? Are they aware of how they are being portrayed?

I have many thoughts on the purpose of visual journalism and many ways of discussing them, but let’s use this version:

  • Journalism is specific, journalism is not generic.
  • Journalism is precise, journalism is not vague.
  • Journalism illuminates, journalism does not decorate.

Is this specific? That’s unknown as there’s no additional information about these specific children. By hiding their faces, they become generic props like the fake food displayed in front of them.

Is it precise? No, as there’s no sense of why (or even if) these two struggle with food insecurity.

Does it illuminate? No, it’s a decorative image – propped, staged and controlled.

As journalists, it’s our responsibility to accurately and truthfully portray the lives of those we document. This image does not do that, it feeds stereotypes not the hungry.

These photographs are from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh two of the poorest states of India. From the series "Dreaming Food", a conceptual project about hunger issue in India. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ My name is Alessio Mamo (@alessio_mamo) an Italian freelance photographer based in Catania, Sicily. In 2008 I began my career in photojournalism focusing on contemporary social, political and economic issues. I extensively cover issues related to refugee displacement and migration starting in Sicily, and extending most recently to the Middle East. I was awarded 2nd prize in the People Singles category of #WPPh2018 and this week I’m taking over World Press Photo's Instagram account. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Despite economic growth, a majority of the Indian population still lives in extreme poverty and disease. Behind India’s new-found economic strength are 300 million poor people who live on less than $1 per day. Government figures may indicate a reduction in poverty. But the truth is, with increasing global food prices, poverty is spreading everywhere like a swarm of locusts. These pictures are taken in rural areas where conditions are worse than in the cities and where close to 70% of India’s population reside today. Statistics show that 2.1 million children under 5 years old die of malnutrition annually. The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #WPPh2018#asia #dreamingfood #india

A post shared by World Press Photo Foundation (@worldpressphoto) on

Sexual Harassment in Photojournalism

Kristen Chick has published an extensive report at the Columbia Journalism Review about sexual harassment in the photojournalism industry.

If you are reading this, you need to go read that. It is not optional.

There is a lot of information to process there. As a male who has been in the industry for almost three decades, I want to be able to say this is a selective view of a small segment of the industry.

Which may be true but it does not matter. Also, I don’t think that it is true.

Harassment comes in big scenes and small scenes. I’ve had colleagues report how they were treated by people they were covering. I’ve had students report that older, male organizers of conferences had invited them to their rooms for after-parties only to find they were the only ones invited and there were pornographic films being shown on the television. I’ve had students report that professionals looked at spokes models in leather pants and turned to the student to say they’d look good in those.

And I use “report” as we do in journalism – when we report something to the public it is because it has been verified and found to be true.

My program here at the University of Georgia is predominantly women. My industry is predominantly male. It is my responsibility to try to balance those two.

We run programs for students throughout the year, including our two signature workshops – Photojournalism at the Fair and the Woodall Weekend Workshop. I have a zero-tolerance policy – I’m not accepting any transgressions and I’m not taking any chances. You don’t get invited unless you’ve been vetted, which means I’ve asked specific questions about you. And if it is reported that you were inappropriate, you are not coming back.

You make my kids feel uncomfortable or othered or less-than and you are done.

And I’m willing to tell my colleagues, near and far, to cut off your access.

Know Your Sources, Deeply

Andrew W. Lehren, Emily R. Siegel and Merritt Enright at NBC News broke a story this week about the First Lady receiving royalty payments that may have come from news outlets … without them knowing it.

Many of the photographs in the Getty Images archive are from a photographer who seems to have an interesting relationship with the Trump family. Regine Mahaux’s images appear to have required model royalties associated with them, meaning that news organizations (of which NBC News found several) were paying the First Lady when they published images of her. They are also reporting that the images have restrictions to be only used for positive news stories.

News organizations have a responsibility to understand where all of the information they publish comes from, which means they may have to investigate all of the agencies from which they draw images.

Of course, having staff photojournalists and your own archive can mitigate this problem – and I do mean mitigate, not eliminate. No organization will ever be able to create and control every image they need to publish.

(Thanks to Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute for the lead on this.)

Native Photographers

Who best can tell a story – an impartial outsider or someone with a deep connection? It’s a perennial question amongst journalists.

The outsider may have no bias but also may lack a depth of understanding. The insider may understand all the issues at hand but could also have been deeply affected by them.

Over at The New York Times, James Estrin looks at the mission of Natives Photograph, a database of Native American photographers.

The Hypocrisy of a Corporate Mandate Urging Independence

By now, you’ve seen the video montage that Deadspin created, with anchors from dozens of Sinclair Broadcasting Group stations reading the same corporate-issued script. You’ve seen the response from media associations like the National Press Photographers Association (and seen the consequences of that statement), you’ve read the analysis from folks like Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a copy of the script edited to include local references to station KOMO. Some comments:

“Hi, I’m(A) ____________, and I’m (B) _________________…
(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our Northwest communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that KOMO News produces.

By using news time for what is a promo or “public service announcement,” you’re cutting into your service to the community.

(A) But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.

Quality journalism dictates that you identify the source of your information. Neither the source of this script nor evidence of the “troubling trend” are provided.

(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.

Did KOMO review the information this report is based on? Allegedly, Sinclair did a survey – did anyone at KOMO look at the results? Did they look at the methodology? Did they talk to a survey expert about the sample size and composition? Did they ask about any implicit bias in the question structures?

(A) Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’…This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.

When one media organization requires all of their stations to run compulsory commentary, with out identifying its corporate source, isn’t that using, “their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda?”

(B) At KOMO it’s our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left nor right.’ Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.

“Factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility” – that’s a powerful and true statement. But when you do not identify the words coming out of your mouth as being someone else’s, when you do not verify the data upon which those words are based and when you do not identify that these are coming from outside your newsroom, outside your news station and outside your community, you lose that credibility that you claim to need.

(A) But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us by going to KOMOnews.com and clicking on CONTENT CONCERNS. We value your comments. We will respond back to you.
(B) We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual… We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day.
Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback”

This is the soft close, this is the, “we’re listening to you but not telling you all we know” finish to make the audience feel good.

Broadcast stations are considered public trustees – because they use airwaves that are owned by all of us, there are certain standards they need to meet, certain obligations they need to fill. As more and more are owned by large corporations (Sinclair currently owns 193 television stations and is in discussions to purchase 40 more), there is a conflict between the public trustee role and the demands of corporate cultures.

Sinclair didn’t cross any legal lines here, but an ethical one has been bridged. Local news organizations should be reflective of and responsible to their local communities. The benefits of corporate ownership should be in taking advantage of scale for business purposes, not in taking advantage of scale to push a political agenda that may not be reflective of the communities.

Having local anchors read a corporate-provided script decrying that, “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda” is the very epitome of hypocrisy and erodes any credibility those news organizations may have.

So what do we do? As an educator, I advise my students to research the entities that are offering internships and jobs beyond just the basic info of location, market share or pay scales. They need to do a deep dive into the newsroom, the local organization and the corporate philosophy.

More so on the broadcast side than on the print side, journalists may have to sign contracts that stipulate everything from how much they’ll be paid to how they can – or cannot – move-on or quit.

I ask my students to look deeply inside themselves, to see if this corporation is a company they would be proud to represent because it will be their name, their likeness, that will be the public face of that company.

A good working environment and culture will go a very long way to make you both happy and successful. Salary alone doesn’t dictate job satisfaction.

I surround myself with journalists, journalism students and journalism educators by choice because we share a common ethical framework and a deep desire to help our local communities, to ask questions in our local communities and to seek answers in our local communities. I appreciate that working for the University of Georgia gives me access to certain benefits because of the scale of this operation but I also appreciate that I am given the ability to work with and react to my immediate constituents – the students and, by extension, the citizens of the state.

Corporate ownership of news organizations is not inherently evil, corporate dictates that do not reflect local priorities is, though. As a public trustee it is incumbent upon corporate owners to allow local operations to reflect the values and needs of those local consumers.

If they don’t, they are participating in yet another form of propaganda designed to control what people think.

The Ethics of Self-assigned Work

In a piece for the Poynter Institute from 2017, Kainaz Amaria talks about the moment she realized she wasn’t going to be a conflict photographer and the underrepresentation of women in photojournalism.

But there’s one line in there, one line that I wish every student and young professional would pay attention to:

It’s that I couldn’t justify asking someone to tell their story if I wasn’t sure I had an outlet to publish in.

Nearly every time there’s a major news event, I start to hear rumblings from students and young professionals across the country – let’s go to (insert location of major news event here), it’ll be great for our portfolios.

And that’s when my stomach churns – it’s the lowest level of humanity that wants to profit off of someone else’s plight in life.

I understand the need to tell stories, the need to build your portfolio, the belief that you need major news events in your book to be considered a “real” photojournalist. But here’s the thing – any decent editor is going to look at your work and ask why you made those images. And if your answer isn’t about helping your community understand, then what you’re showing is not journalism. It’s just photography.

And it’s photography that’s been done at the expense of someone else.

Photojournalism is about informing an audience, it is about advancing the understanding of an event or issue, it is about raising and answering questions about the human condition. It is not about moments of drama or great light or clean backgrounds – that’s photography.

If you get that urge to pile in a car and go somewhere just because there’s news, ask yourself who you’re telling that story to. Without knowing and understanding who you are making images for, you’re not doing journalism.

Seeing Where You Are

For every photographer who has ever said they need to travel somewhere to make better images, for every journalist who has driven to work with windows up and music playing, you must read this piece by Neeta Satam on how to see stories ethically.

Next week, students in our Documentary Photojournalism course will head a little south for our 13th Annual Woodall Weekend Workshop, three days in one rural community telling its story. They will focus in on one project, working with ten professionals acting as editors, coaches and mentors.

There is nothing unique or special about the communities we choose for them to cover, they are everyday places full of everyday happenings – stories we need to see to understand who we are.

These are the stories of our backyard.

(Thanks to Sean Elliot for the link.)