Is Video a Trojan Horse for Photojournalistic Ethics?


Tension has always existed between television and print journalists. While casual observers tend to write this off to ink-stained newspaper staffers being jealous of the higher profile –- and paychecks -– of their TV brethren, the reality is that significant differences exist in how TV and print news organizations gather the news.

Of particular relevance to photojournalistic ethics, television news is often driven by a quick turnaround mentality that can lead videographers to take shortcuts such as staging shots –- a clear ethical no-no from the vantage point of many still photographers. And in the biggest photojournalism ethics controversy of recent years -– the coverage of the 2006 Lebanon War -– staged shots were as much a factor as digitally altered images.

“Television photojournalists have always been held less accountable for their visual reportage, because TV has been perceived by the public as a form of entertainment in popular culture. For example, a print photojournalist can be fired for setting up a picture, but a TV photographer often sets up re-enactments,” says Dennis Dunleavy, associate communications professor at Southern Oregon University.

Press Photographers — or Visual Journalists?

The concern over differing ethical standards most recently came to the fore in May, as the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) voted on whether to change its name to the Society of Visual Journalists (SVJ) –- a formal acknowledgement that the premier association for print photojournalists was now at least equally focused on television and videography.

While the proposed name change was deferred until a branding expert could be brought in to consult with the organization, such a change seems inevitable. This is particularly true given that virtually all photojournalists may soon need to add video to their repertoire.

For some print photojournalists — who have viewed the NPPA Code of Ethics as the closest thing to a Bible the industry has -– this evolution of the organization is a slap in the face. In particular, still photographers say that TV news photographers routinely stage shots in violation of their interpretation of NPPA directives, including:

• Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
• Respect the integrity of the photographic moment.
• While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.

Three Kinds of Staging

Television news crews, meanwhile, openly defend the staging of shots that could get their print brethren fired, critics say. As Travis Lynn writes for the Journal of Mass Media, their justifications fall into three categories:

1. Staging for purposes of editing. The conventions of TV news call for reverse angle shots, cutaways, and other devices that often require the cooperation of the subject. They cannot be achieved by simply letting events unfold naturally.

2. Staging for purposes of time. Subjects are often asked to repeat, recreate or simulate actions that the videographer missed or does not have time to stay and witness in person. Videographers argue that this does not necessarily alter the integrity of the story, but many print photographers differ on this point.

3. Staging for purposes of storytelling. This is when a videographer stages an event that may or may not naturally occur — and then does not reveal that it has been staged. Most TV journalists draw the line at this kind of staging and consider it unethical. A notorious example of this is Dateline NBC’s staged explosion of a GM truck for a 1993 segment on faulty gas tanks.

A Different Medium with Different Requirements

Jack Zibluk, an associate professor of journalism at Arkansas State University and former vice president of the NPPA, says that print photographers must accept that television is a different medium with different requirements:

Given audience expectations, there are different ways to tell truths, and one is not better than another. A voiceover narration of a television story is standard in broadcast format, but some still photographers consider additional sound that hasn’t really occurred in real time to be unethical. In a converged environment, we have to recognize that different practices may be accepted as truthful to the audience. That doesn’t make them unethical. So, while there are different practices, one medium is not more ethical than another.

But in the minds of many print photojournalists, TV’s justifications for setting up shots represent a slippery slope – one that starts with the relatively innocent staging for editing purposes, but can eventually descend into changing the nature of the story.

“Like many print photojournalists, I have questioned whether our television counterparts are truly committed to the NPPA’s ethics code,” says Heather S. Hughes, an NPPA member. “Many TV photographers routinely set up shots, have subjects ‘redo’ things or pretend to do them because they either missed the shot, want a different angle or want B-roll.

“I cringe at being equated with videographers who train their subjects to ask ‘What do you want us to do?’ instead of taking the time to allow reality to unfold.”

Adds print photojournalist Douglas Tesner, “Unless you are blind you have seen video journalists and multimedia specialists or new media specialists routinely setting up shots … I do not want to join that group.”

Melissa Lyttle, a photojournalist for the St. Petersburg Times, expresses the same concern: “Who let them (video) into our clubhouse without making them play by our rules… namely, having some ethics?”

A Battle Already Lost?

As the wall separating video from print has come down symbolically within the NPPA, so it is coming down in practice in newsrooms across America. Newspapers and other print media outlets are adding video and multimedia packages to their Web sites –- and asking still photographers to do the work. This puts them in the position of competing directly with TV videographers.

With photojournalism’s leading ethical voice embracing TV videographers (and by implication, their newsgathering practices), and print news organizations asking print photojournalists to compete on TV’s turf, is it only a matter of time before print photojournalists routinely embrace the shot-staging practices that many of them now consider unethical?

Print photographer Hughes, for one, says she has resisted this pressure when taking on video assignments:

Having had a taste of the video side, I can understand the need for “B roll” and extra footage that requires them to get the same action from multiple angles, which is not possible as a single videographer. I dealt with it by getting different [shots], because I am not comfortable asking someone to “pretend” or “do over” a candid moment. The problem is TV has no issue with using the staged moment and presenting it as real …You can get the moment and your “B roll” without faking anything; you just have to work a little harder.

At the least, the interpretation of ethical standards is becoming less clear-cut – generating considerable confusion. As Karen Slattery and Erik Ugland write in The Digital Journalist:

Although it is natural for disagreement about ethical boundaries in photojournalism to exist, and although it is expected that professional norms will evolve over time, photojournalists often work without a clear understanding of what their colleagues, employers or audiences expect of them.

Will engaging in a form of staging that has typically been acceptable or routine in one context cause a photojournalist to be disciplined or fired in a different context? Right now that possibility exists.

Then again, perhaps the issue of print vs. TV photojournalism will soon be moot. The Digital Journalist’s editor, Dirck Halstead, points out that most major print news organizations have issued video cameras to their photographers. He predicts that virtually all photojournalists will be transitioned to video within just a few years:

Things change in life, horse and buggy was great a hundred years ago but you wouldn’t consider driving a horse and buggy on a freeway today. I’ve been a photojournalist now for almost 50 years and I have never been more excited about the future of photojournalism than I am today. It’s a far richer medium and essentially all photojournalists are going to become film-makers.

The preceding post is an excerpt from Black Star’s new e-book, “Photojournalism, Technology and Ethics: What’s Right and Wrong Today?” Download the free e-book here.


One Response to “Is Video a Trojan Horse for Photojournalistic Ethics?”

  1. This is a well intentioned post, and I appreciate your efforts. However, like Joe says, I'm of a slightly different perspective.

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