Ethics in Photojournalism

Essay, 2009

17 Pages, Grade: 5,0 => 1,0 (s. Anm.)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. On journalism ethics

3. On photojournalism and ethics

4. Examples

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

The contemporary condition is often described as a state of being surrounded, even bombarded by images. The condition is also characterized as an image flow, increasing in its intensity as the means and sources of image production and distribution continue to expand geometrically. Pictures are said to be the most common way of spreading information, of making an impact, of expressing oneself, of influencing others.

(Becker 2004:149)

The Mohammed cartoons, torture photos from Abu Ghraib, videos from school shooting, and pictures from dead bodies in the London terrorist attacks taken by other victims are visual contents that we all had to deal with in the last years.

The discussions on the changes for journalists caused by digitalization are ubiquitous. But mostly they focus on decreasing readership numbers, how to re-connect with the public, and on grassroots journalism. Ethical questions usually are concerned with issues such as tabloidization, sensationalism, and emotionalization- in short, quality loss in journalism. Journalistic codes are updated and adapted to the new demands.

Other societal debates concentrate on possible negative influences of pictures in news media, video games, music videos, and such- usually containing violence and/or sex. But there is a lack of discourse on ethical challenges concerning photojournalism. During or after a tragedy like school shootings there is lots of talk but the ferocity of those arguments is neither reflected in professional debates of journalists on ethics in photojournalism nor in journalistic codes. However, those issues are gaining importance proportional to the rising significance cameras, picture taking, and visual media in people’s lives. This essay therefore is summarizing current debates about journalism ethics, focusing on visual media. Those issues are illustrated with two examples: the Mohammed cartoon-incident and school shootings at the Virginia Tech University, USA and in Jokela, Finland. The question to be answered is what problems exist concerning ethical issues in photojournalism and how they possibly could be improved.

2. On journalism ethics

When thinking about journalism and ethics what is mentioned are usually the journalism codes that address ethical rules for the profession. The ‘formal journalism ethics’ derived from ‘informal discourses on journalism ethics’ and a variety of codes from ‘single media codes’ of one newspaper to ‘multinational codes’ exists. (Hafez 2002: 226-7)

Not all media institutions have codes of ethics and their importance differs from pro forma presence to half-hearted observance. Globally it can be argued that while ethical principles exist they are not always reflected in the behaviour. Causes therefor are that media professionals and scholars create many codes but there are no self-disciplining codes installed by media organisations or the government. Additionally, the growing media monopolies weaken pluralism and media governance is still strongly restricted to nations which leads to an ineffectiveness of ethical codes in the internationalized news world. Another aspect that does not fit the media landscape of today anymore is the codes’ focus on the individual journalist while in the newsroom media professional are increasingly required to work in teams. (Theranian 2002: 69-73) Also, there is little discussion about the difference in theory and practice concerning ethical codes. Most journalists see themselves as following high ethical ideals but the work practice is often different. The codes are guidelines but the concrete decision needs to be made by the media professionals. (Keith et al. 2006: 255-8) The most common concepts of the journalists’ profession are public service, objectivity, autonomy, immediacy and ethics. (Deuze 2000: 447) Those aspects are reflected in the different paragraphs of journalism codes.

3. On photojournalism and ethics

In the past, photography, excluding its use in art, has been seen as depictions of the truth, as a witness. This estimation has not changed with the digitalization in spite of the new possibilities of manipulation. News journalism has been and still is one of the main areas where photography is given a central position. Its task is to objectively represent reality. This has not been true even before digitalization since the situation a picture is taken of is only part of a bigger scene. Also the choice which photograph is printed where is an interpretation. But this belief or cultural practice is rooted in our understanding of the world. (Tirohl 2000:335-8) Domke (2002: 134) ascribes five impacts to images. They inhabit ‘mnemonic powers’ which means that images are easier to remember compared to written texts. They can become icons that stand for an event or issue as well as they have aesthetic strength. Further images evoke emotional reactions and they can have political impacts by changing believes about issues and by that influence policy making. But even though images are seen as powerful they very rarely have the ability to overturn already existing believes and values. Those usually play an essential role in the interpretation of pictures. One of the strongest features of images is their power to start a process of active, individual consideration and evaluation of ones social and political surroundings. (Andén-Papadopoulos 2008: 8; Domke 2002: 147-8) Overall, the assumptions about the amount of influence images have to affect the audience range from being very cautious to assigning them almost endless power. But it is generally agreed on that pictures in news media draw an audience and frame events. (Keith et al. 2006: 246)

Similar to written journalism photojournalism also faces changes and challenges like smaller budgets, changing practices, technologies, and culture as well as a re-definition process of the professional position and requirements. (Pantti and Bakker 2009: 483)

Several major issues are challenging the media landscape. On one hand those are the new possibilities that arose with the technical potential of digitalization. In professional journalism mainly the almost limitless methods of pictures manipulation are widely discussed. (Harris 1991: 164) The ethical questions that arise can be divided in to four groups:

“digital photo alteration, decisions faced by photographers when shooting images of violence and tragedy, decisions faced by editors and producers when considering the dissemination of images of violence and tragedy, and how codes of ethics should or do address images.” (Keith et al. 2006: 247)

On the other hand the new phenomenon of citizen participation changes the (media) culture. With the steadily increasing quality of mobile phone cameras, taking pictures becomes an even more integral part our culture. Everybody can take pictures every time, and everybody does. The media are including those photographs –for different reasons- into their media products. This evokes a discussion about the quality of those contributions as well as ethical questions concerning the content and the non-professional background of the photographers. One main argument concerning amateur images is that they are not taken by media professionals. The term ‘profession’ includes the concept of an expertise monopoly acquired though training, experience, and talent as well as the acceptance of the rules of the profession e.g. ethical codes for journalists. The missing education and knowledge of amateurs opposes to the notion of news being a sensitive area that demands certain requirements. It is especially doubted whether amateurs are able to make decisions concerning ethical issues like a professional journalist is assumed to be able to do. (Singer 2003: 139-141) There exists no ‘modus operandi’ and no routine in how to evaluate and treat this kind of content. The speed and the uncertainty about future of those developments might be reasons for the absence of standardization. (Pantti and Bakker 2009: 476)

Ethical questions raised by amateur images fit into the four above mentioned categories as well since the trend is developing towards imposing stricter rules similar to the professional ones on photojournalistic amateur content. They do not have to follow the same quality standards but the truth value as well as the metadata is being verified, and valid contact details must be attached. This practice is different to textual contributions where e.g. anonymity is tolerated to some extent. (Pantti and Bakker 2009: 481) Citizen contribution in photojournalism is most important when it comes to catastrophes and disasters like 9/11, the London bombings, hurricane Katrina, the tsunami and such. (Keith et al. 2006: 245) Photographs and videos from those happenings make it into the mainstream media because they are newsworthy. The fact that they do not (have to) follow the same ethical and credibility demands as the ones from professional journalists raises the question whether these images should be used by professional media at all. But in the course of getting closer to their audiences again, media companies encourage audience participation because it had been made possible by digitalization. They are also part of new business models since those contents are inexpensive compared to the professionally produced ones. Additionally those images usually increase rates, create higher esteem in comparison to competitors as well as better advertising revenue. (Bridge and Sjøvaag 2009: 17; Pantti and Bakker 2009: 471-5) Obviously, the point that citizens are everywhere has a lot to do with the fact that they are able to deliver this kind of material. There is only a certain amount of professional journalists and they first need to be sent to the scene while the ‘amateur journalists’ with their mobile phone cameras are already there. One development that strengthens the usage of amateur images is that due to the changes in the media, companies prefer using photo agencies over employing an own photographer. As a consequence, the amateur images can fill in the gap this progress left since the audience still wants to see authentic, ‘real’, and intimate pictures that are not the same all over the world. (Pantti and Bakker 2009: 483-4) Professional journalists themselves have different opinions on amateur images varying from dealing with it because they have to, to embracing it as a chance to obtain material that otherwise would not exist and become involved in a relationship with the audience. (Pantti and Bakker 2009: 483)

When it comes to images of crisis, both from press or amateurs, the most important decisions to be made concerning disturbing and/or shocking pictures of violence and tragedy involve ethics, censorship, and laws as well as the assumed wants and needs of the audience. (Keith et al. 2006: 249)


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Ethics in Photojournalism
University of Helsinki  (Communications)
Current Issues in Journalism
5,0 => 1,0 (s. Anm.)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1184 KB
Das Finnische Notensystem geht von 5-1,wobei 5 die beste Note ist und 1 noch genügend ist dh eine 5 enspricht einer Schweizerischen 6 bzw. einder Deutschen 1.
Journalism, Photojournalism, Ethics, Medienwissenschaften
Quote paper
Nina Ratavaara (Author), 2009, Ethics in Photojournalism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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