Self-Study Unit 3: Photography & Trauma

In the introduction to his book Truth Needs No Ally: Inside Photojournalism, writer and photographer Howard Chapnick describes photojournalism as both profession and calling. The profession can be a lonely one that is marked by “incredible pressures to perform and deliver” and its practitioners need “boundless energy, unflagging enthusiasm, a spirit of adventure, the ability to survive under difficult conditions, and the courage to confront danger” (1994, p. 8).

Photojournalists are professionals who adhere to ethical standards that set them apart from the hobbyist taking snap shots while on vacation. National, regional, and news organization-specific guidelines offer photojournalists help in meeting the demands of their job and balancing the challenges from both sides of the lens.

For example, the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists advises “be sensitive in seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief” and “recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort.”

And the White House News Photographers Association tells members to “always be mindful of our duty to the common good of society [and] sensitive to matters of privacy and the grief of others.”

The Dallas Morning News states plainly in its newsroom guidelines with regard to photographs “follow good taste and good sense.”

Perhaps the National Press Photographers Association offers among the better overall recommendations for the profession. The group’s Code of Ethics includes the following, “Photojournalism affords an opportunity to serve the public that is equaled by few other vocations and all members of the profession should strive by example and influence to maintain high standards of ethical conduct free of mercenary considerations of any kind.”

In Coté and Simpson’s book, Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims of Trauma, the authors put together a list of specific guidelines culled from recommendations put out by a variety of professional organizations. These apply to both print and video photographers. They include:

   · Do not knowingly allow a live broadcast of a killing, whether homicide or suicide, especially in close-up and showing wounds and blood.

   · Build in a delay of several seconds during live transmissions to allow a decision on whether to show something.

   · Insist that photographers and photo and graphics editors join other editors or news directors in deciding what photos to publish or tapes to air.

   · Be sure relatives have been notified before you announce or show the identity of a person who has been killed [whenever possible].

   · Do not interrupt children’s programming to show deaths.

   · For television news reports, give viewers enough advance warning of what you are about to show so that someone can leave the room, remove children, or change channels.

   · Remember that children may be able to see a photo in a newspaper left lying around or when adults have let the television on.

   · For newspapers, think about the relative effects of photos published on the front page and inside pages. Something that might be too graphic for someone (especially a child) glancing at a front page could be less troublesome inside.

   · No matter what photos or footage you decide to use, tell the whole story – before, during and after – of what happened to the human being involved, not just the death.

   · If you decide to show a tape of some part of a suicide or other death, do it once – say, on the first regular evening news – but do not use file tape in subsequent telecasts.

   · If you have considered all these factors and still cannot decide what to do, try what the Christian Science Monitor’s Buffy Chindler calls the “Wheaties Test”: Would it be suitable for the breakfast table?

   · As soon as deadline pressures ease, discuss the decision, how it affected survivors and the public, and whether you should have handled anything differently. The more discussion there is of these experiences, the more likely you are to avoid thoughtless miscues in the future.

   · Finally, do not assume that these, or any other guidelines or policies, will save you from agonizing over what to show and not show. They will not and perhaps should not.

(From Coté and Simpson, 2000, pp. 138-139)

These, of course, are not hard-and-fast rules that apply to every use of a visual image. There may be exceptions, depending on the particular circumstances of the news event. The experience, professional skills and insight of media professionals will also need to come into play. These guidelines are meant to help advance an organization’s dialogue — or an individual’s self-reflection — about the ethical parameters of photographing traumatic events.

For more information on what is expected of contemporary photojournalists from various professional organizations, visit the following web sites.

American Society of Newspaper Editors

Columbia Journalism Review

National Press Photographers Association

Society for Professional Journalists

White House News Photographers Association

The BBC’s Producers’ Guidelines for Reporting Trauma & Death