PHOTOGRAPHY & THE LAW: ETHICAL OBSERVATIONS
Posted by Mickey H. Osterreicher — 23 Jun 2012
In the aftermath of actor Alec Baldwin's assault on photographers who were waiting for him on a public street outside the New York City Marriage License Bureau this week, the distinction between the use of the pejorative "paparazzi" as a way to denigrate members of the media is not only unfortunate, but does a disservice to all photographers and journalists who strive to earn a living through visual storytelling.
I believe that a "photojournalist," is someone dedicated to a specific aspect of journalism who captures still images and audio-visual recordings for public dissemination in print, by broadcast or online. It is widely understood that photojournalists adhere to strong ethical guidelines ensuring honest, objective and compelling images, created in a straightforward manner while remaining as unobtrusive as possible.
As a former photojournalist with almost 40 years of experience in both print and broadcast journalism I also strongly feel that personal accountability is the responsibility of every photographer and that "accuracy in our work and integrity in our relationships with the public we serve are essential qualities for all photojournalists." It is for that reason that I am an advocate of the NPPA Code of Ethics* which "attempts to foster the spirit of honesty in all aspects of our professional lives."
media frenzy by michael hensdill
Visual storytelling serves the public good which is why it is so critical to maintain integrity while pursuing the primary role of visually reporting on matters of public concern wherever they take place. It is often said that journalism is the first rough draft of history. In a similar light, the sights and sounds we capture are sometimes the first and only view of an historical event. "As visual journalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its history through our images."
The only Photograph by Giovanni Savino
"Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated."
The NPPA Code of Ethics was drafted "to promote the highest quality in all forms of visual journalism and to strengthen public confidence in the profession." "It is also meant to serve as an educational tool both for those who practice and for those who appreciate photojournalism."
Light Table by Ken d'E
But it is not only visual journalists who need to be held accountable for adhering to these high standards. They apply to all those who assign, edit, manage and publish audio-visual images. Among other things, the visual journalism community should strive to "be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects; resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities; be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects; avoid stereotyping individuals and groups; recognize and work to avoid presenting one's own biases in the work; treat all subjects with respect and dignity; give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy; and intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see."
The ability to instantaneously transmit information combined with increased demands for content may create the temptation for some to blur these fine lines. If an already skeptical public is to maintain its faith in what it sees these ethical imperatives cannot be overstated and if anything new ones need to be developed to keep pace with the exponential advances in technology. In addressing a growing concern the NPPA has stated that "as journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public."
Self Portrait... editing photographs from the newspaper ! by R. Donask
It is also paramount for everyone to advocate for and defend the rights of journalists to have access to public events. It is also no less important to lead by example in order to promote both the spirit and letter of these high professional standards.
As most of you are well aware, ethical issues are complex. Rather than relying solely upon reading a code of ethics I encourage you to discuss and explore these questions at every opportunity so as to be better prepared when confronting a challenging situation.
The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) has a number of resources on this subject that can be found at: http://nppa.org/professional_development/self-training_resources/ethics/
* N.B. NPPA Code of Ethics quoted extensively in this article with permission.
Mickey H. Osterreicher is of Counsel to Hiscock & Barclay, and serves as general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). The NPPA is a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of visual journalism in its creation, editing and distribution. NPPA's almost 7,000 members include photographers, editors, students and all those interested in photography willing to abide by a code of ethics. Since its founding in 1946, the NPPA has vigorously promoted the constitutional rights of journalists as well as freedom of the press in all its forms.