Photojournalism: A Fine Line Between Genius and Insanity

Everyone is connected to friends, family, entertainment, and news through tweets, wall posts, downloads, and sharing. With so much information available for immediate consumption, it takes a little more spice for journalists to grab their audience’s attention. For journalists, covering a story is more than writing an informative piece, it is finding a way to hook a reader.

The use of graphic and shocking images along with a story is one way that journalists attempt to get their message across the cluttered information highway. Although this practice may be effective, you have to ask… how graphic is too graphic? In some cases, powerful images or video can often be helpful in covering an important issue. In the photo featured on the left, the photographer captured the despair of a mother that was experiencing the difficulty of providing for her family during the Great Depression. The photograph eventually became a symbol of the struggle and devastation for the average American living during tough economic times. In another example of images being used to raise awareness, CBS News recently shot a video that shows how wildlife is suffering from the BP oil spill.

Other times, deciding to publish a graphic image in a newspaper or television broadcast may offend more than it informs. The book Media Ethics: Issues and Cases goes into depth about the ethical decision- making processes that should guide a journalist in deciding whether the impact of the image, and the message it carries, is greater than the possibility of offending readers. In the photo featured on the right, the photographer was faced with the ethical dilemma of taking the photo during the Kent State protests, or stop and help the vicitim. Photojournalists are supposed to capture moments like these, but are they invading the privacy of victims by publishing the photo?

Visual journalism and ethics expert Kenneth Irby advises journalists to ask themselves a three-part question before deciding to publish controversial images.

In his blog, Poynter Institute group leader, Al Tompkins, suggests that “newsrooms take a few minutes to scroll through these images and talk about how they would decide to use or not use each one.”

Photographs and videos have the ability to evoke strong emotions in viewers. If used correctly, they can help gain support for an issue. On the other hand, graphic images can be seen as rude and offensive if the audience feels that the journalist is exposing them to unnecessary violence or shock.

Should journalists risk shocking or offending their readers by publishing a graphic image if it means readers are gaining a deeper understanding of a story?

Each picture tells a different story, but one thing is for sure, a journalist’s decision to use graphic images has to come from an ethical decision- making process.

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2 Responses to Photojournalism: A Fine Line Between Genius and Insanity

  1. Krista says:

    This post really struck a cord with me. I remember during the week that the 9/11 attacks took place, I was in high school and my French teacher showed us some pictures of the attack online. One of the pictures is emblazoned in my memory for all time. It was a photograph of a man free-falling after jumping from one of the top floors of the World Trade Center. It was deeply disturbing to me and I will never forget it. I’ve seen many similar pictures since and they only remind me of the first one. The 9/11 attacks themselves are an excellent example of the discretion that editors chose or did not choose to use during the news coverage. Personally, I don’t think I would have chosen to show the pictures of people jumping and falling just because I feel like it’s a very touchy subject… but then again everyone is a critic. Nice post.

    • mbalandra says:

      Funny you used that as an example, because those images came to mind when I was writing the post. Those pictures were definitely graphic, but they also helped tell the story for people that were not in New York to witness the tragedy for themselves. For example, the photograph you mentioned of the man free-falling it is ethically sound (in my humble opinion) to publish the photo as long as the man could not be identified (that way his family does not have to live with that image of their loved one). The reason I say this is because in terms of reporting the news, it is important for people to know the lengths that Americans went through to survive that day. From a journalist’s standpoint, sharing those types of images completes the story and helps readers gain a deeper understanding of a tragic situation. Like I said in the post, each photo/video needs to be evaluated based on its own unique situation and shock value.

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