The Ethics of Managing Conflict Journalism

James Estrin has a must read story at The New York Times’ Lens blog looking at the apparent use of activists and untrained photographers in Syria. There are portions of this that horrify me – including the triggering act of an 18 year old, apparently equipped and paid by Reuters, who was killed recently.

The ethical concerns involve more than putting teens in harms way – some of the images Reuters transmitted to clients used a pseudonym and some were staged.

As I’ve been mulling this over and trying to balance the corporate concerns of providing coverage to expectant clients, the responsibility to those you employ (regardless of whether they are on staff or contact) and our journalistic role as truth seekers, the transgressions involved here are staggering.

How do you allow activists, those with a specific and known point of view, to feed your news stream? How do you justify paying non-professional photographers in a conflict zone? How do you not warn your clients that the images they are using to inform their readership may come from questionable sources?

And how in the world to you justify giving cameras and cash to a kid, then sending him into a war zone?

I understand that there is a need for conflict photography. It’s not something I’ve ever done nor want to do, but I get that there’s a need to see what’s happening. Those that bear witness must, must, be properly trained and equipped to deal with those situations.

An 18 year old in a flak jacket is not, ever, going to be prepared to do that.

Side note: I’m currently at the NPPA’s Northern Short Course and on Saturday’s schedule is Louie Palu who will be talking about working in hostile situations. I had a brief hallway chat with him yesterday and, if you’re anywhere near Rhode Island, you should get here.

Mark E. Johnson

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