Sunday, February 28, 2010

Photojournalism Ethics and Taste

In order to have a rational, logical discussion of ethics, a distinction needs to be drawn between ethics and taste. Ethics refers to issues of deception, or lying. Taste refers to issues involving blood, sex, violence and other aspects of life we do not want to see in our morning paper as we eat breakfast. Not everyone defines taste-ethics this way but I find it useful. Issues of taste can cause a few subscription cancellations and letters to the editor but they tend to evaporate in a few days. Ethics violations damage credibility and the effects can last for years. Once you damage your credibility, it is next to impossible to get it back.

The photo of the dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu raises issues of taste, not issues of ethics. This photo is a fair and accurate representation of what happened in Somalia that day (I hesitate to use the word "truthful." Truth is a loaded concept, open to personal interpretation. What is true for one person may not be true for another. I prefer to use the terms "fair and accurate." These terms are more precise, though not completely without debate over their meaning).

If we are to use this photo, a photo that is ethically correct but definitely of questionable taste (no one wants to see dead American soldiers in the newspaper), we need to have a compelling reason. Earlier I mentioned I would give you some principles that I find useful and this is the first: If the public needs the information in the photo in order to make informed choices for society, then we must run the photo. We cannot make informed choices for our society unless we have access to fair and accurate information. A free society is based on this right. It is codified in our country as the First Amendment. We have to know what is happening in our towns, in our country, in our world, in order to make decisions that affect us as a society. The First Amendment does not belong to the press, it belongs to the American people. It guarantees all of us the right to the fair and accurate information we need to be responsible citizens.

We needed to see the dead soldier in the streets so we could make an informed choice as a country as to the correctness of our being in Somalia. Words can tell us the facts but photos hit us in the gut. They give us the real meaning, the deep and emotional impact of what was happening much better than words can. As a society we decided that we needed to leave that country.

I feel bad for the family of the soldier but sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. In our country, we have the right to our privacy (usually the Sixth Amendment is cited) but we also have to live together and act collectively. This need is addressed by the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

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