Page 75: Exercise 3.3
Breaking the news.
Brief: Read this blog about the New York Post’s image of a man about to be killed by a subway train. Read the details of the blog carefully and write up your own analysis of the event. Comment on the ethical decision of the commuter who took the picture.
My analysis of the event:
Is the event in question the publishing of the photograph, i.e. the intent of the newspaper editorial team, or the taking of the photo, i.e. the intent of the commuter / photographer? In both cases, we can only surmise because the intentions are not given in the article.
The intent of the newspaper team:
Possible intentions: because the photo appeared on the front page, neither the victim nor the photographer were well-known and no reasons were given overtly or covertly for publishing the image, we can assume that sensationalism / ‘lurid curiosity’ (2), which leads to increased circulation and therefore revenue, was at the heart of the m.o. in this case, in my opinion.
The article (2) tells us that ethical guidance such as ““Minimize Harm” section of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics, a set of working guidelines voluntarily adopted by journalism schools and many working journalists. The section advises journalists to show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. It also says to avoid pandering to “lurid curiosity” and to show “good taste” when covering gruesome subjects.” (2)
Photojournalists are guided by their own newspaper’s code of ethics which covers the editorial team too. In this case the commuter / photographer is not bound by any ethical standards, but those who publish the images are. John Long, for 15 years chair of the NPPA ethics committee states: “Newspapers have an obligation to publish images, even horrifying ones, that might affect public debate over important issues … we as a society could learn from them and make decisions for society,” (1). I have no idea what we would learn from the publication of this image. Long adds: ““If I was the night editor, I don’t think I’d run it.” However, he adds, “it’s a contract between a paper and its readers, and it’s different from paper to paper. The New York Post is not known for its subtlety in taste decisions.”
Long reflects my analysis for the coverage of this incident by the NYP.
The intent of the commuter / photographer:
The stated intention for taking the photo was given as wanting to warn the train driver that something was amiss. Like the writer of both quoted articles, I don’t subscribe to it because he could have used the torch on his phone rather than the camera to alert the driver. If he had the presence of mind to use the flash on his camera, he could have had the same presence of mind to intervene in the situation by pulling the victim back, I think. Had I been there, I think I would have frozen to the spot & not been able to do anything given the pending disaster as I saw it happening, possibly in slow motion.
Of the commuter’s responsibility, John Long of the National Press Photographers’ Association ethical committee: “Your job as a human being, so to speak, outweighs your job as a photojournalist,” he adds: “ You live your life with the values you got somewhere along the line,” he says. “I do not approach photojournalism as the be all and end all. It’s an honorable profession, but the values I bring to my job come from other sources.” (1)
I am certain that, given the facility of taking and uploading images to social networking sites, we are also aware of the consequences of our actions. There is that time delay between those two actions in which we must be aware of what we are doing and why.
The case often cited which raises this thorny ethical question is that of award-winning photojournalist, Kevin Carter, who took the image in the Sudan of a starving child on her way to a feeding station, being seemingly stalked by a vulture and that Kevin committed suicide shortly afterwards: “an act some attributed to guilt over what he had witnessed.” (1)
In his book Bending the Frame, Fred Ritchin also tells us that shortly after having been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for that image, one of Kevin’s closest colleagues, Ken Oosterbrook, had died, killed in the cross-fire in a town outside Johannesburg. “Dealing with his own issues, including drug addiction and guilt, Carter was distraught … he committed suicide leaving a note explaining that he was ‘depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & hunger & pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners. I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.” (Ritchin Pp 22-23).
So the implied cause and effect in the article (1) behind the suicide was not that straight forward. The same may be said of the commuter in this case who had probably never sold an image to the press in the past. As with the practices of photojournalists in the past, theirs is the responsibility to provide the images, the editorial staff take on the responsibility for how / if the image is broadcast. In this case, we are not dealing with a photojournalist who has been schooled in the ethical implications of diverting a course of action he has been asked to cover; could we be possibly dealing with a commuter who sees the role of a newspaper as an agent for the dissemination of infotainment?
There is enough material to cover this topic for a Ph.D proposal, never mind exercise 3.3 of a section of a module of a B.A. degree.
- Ritchin, F.: 2013. Bending the frame. Aperture Foundation.