Photos and video

This section addresses these ethical questions:

Few would disagree that photos and video should give an honest picture of an event. But the taking and editing of photos raises many ethical questions.

Taking photos

A news organization needs to decide how circumspect or intrusive it will be about shooting photos. Is it in the “paparazzi” school, or does it seek permission to take photos and avoid “sneak” photos of private moments?

The advent of drone photography — often with very inexpensive, toy-like drones — has made it more possible than ever to obtain sneak photos or to overfly private property. News outlets need a clear policy on the use of drones. In many ways, the same principles of privacy and propriety apply to drone photography as to any other shooting. However, drone shooting is becoming so common that unless it’s specifically addressed in ethics codes, shooters may think it’s an area unto itself.

Some news outlets allow their photographers to pose or re-enact events. Others believe this is bad policy and that any poses or re-enactments — if they must be used — should be disclosed as such in the caption.

Similarly, events that are set up specifically to be “photo opportunities” should be identified to viewers as such. Should we ever ask a photo subject to hold high a trophy, pose in his new automobile, etc., the caption should make clear this was being done for photographers.

Many photographers are sensitive to their work causing additional trauma to those who have already suffered loss (in war, natural disasters, etc.). Sometimes the ethical thing is not to take a photo or to take a wide-angled shot from a distance that doesn’t directly intrude on grieving, frightened people.

Influencing events

Sometimes photographers encounter scenes where they feel shooting images creates ethical dilemmas. If children are drowning in a lake and more rescuers are needed, should a photographer put down his camera and join the effort? If someone is threatening suicide in a public venue, should a videographer turn off the camera? Madeleine Bair of WITNESS says photographers should be aware that their very presence can affect how events unfold. People engaged in violence may exercise more restraint when photographers appear — or may become even more violent to create an even more fearsome picture. Whatever the case, photographers should be clear in their captions if their presence caused the situation to change. Some photographers will try to use their presence to calm a situation, feeling an ethical obligation to help stem violence. Or, if they think their presence will inflame things, they may shoot from a distance, so people aren’t aware photos are being made. Ultimately, photographers need to think about the impact of what they do and don’t do — with an eye to living with their decisions in months and years to come.

Editing and manipulation

Many news organizations allow no manipulation of photos or video through Photoshop or other means. While they allow removal of dust and scratches from an image, or normal toning and white balance adjustment, they do not allow anything to be added to or subtracted from an image. This includes background or other elements that have nothing to do with the main subject of the image. “Red eye” may not be corrected.

Other news outlets are more lenient, especially regarding elements of the photo that have nothing to do with its news content. However, such outlets put themselves at risk of being found out and of entering a slippery slope in which more and more critical elements of images are altered until the outlets’ photos or video lose credibility.

News companies and bloggers also have varying rules about obscuring or pixelating faces or other objects. Some will do this themselves, often to protect a person’s identity. Others take great pains to avoid such situations, posing people in a way that doesn’t show their face or cropping out identifying details. In some situations, images are pixelated to protect viewers from gory or graphic material.

Occasionally, news organizations will receive photos from police or another organization that has obscured a face, and then use the material because of its news value. However, whenever material is obscured, the reader should be informed of the manipulation and who did it.

Composite photos create serious ethical issues. Putting two people side-by-side who never stood together in that setting, or putting the image of an airline president in front of one of his planes when the scene never occurred, can damage credibility seriously. Those who insist on this kind of manipulation should at least make clear in the caption what has been done.

A 2014 report from World Press Photo by David Campbell raises a series of fundamental issues about photos and manipulation. It notes that with digital photography, there may be no “original image”; the original “shot” may simply be digital data that has no meaning at all before processing by software inside or outside the camera. The report adds that when ethics codes allow only “minor” changes to images, that term is very subjective. Some ethics codes try to compare “minor” changes to those routinely made in chemical darkrooms; however, skilled darkroom technicians could make very substantial changes to photos if they wished (e.g. toning can obscure a photo’s details), and many young photographers today have only a vague idea of what chemical photo processing consisted of. The report says the profession should consider ways to create an “open digital audit trail” and a “certified workflow” to make completely transparent how a photo’s data is handled from the very start.

Some news organizations do video re-enactments of news events. Defenders of this practice believe re-enactments bring past events to life, and viewers will understand that no re-enactment can be totally faithful to the original occurrence. Others have raised the question whether re-enactments are, in fact, fake footage — and whether a news organization should be involved at all in presenting material that is not fully factual. Everyone would probably agree that re-enactments, if used at all, should be clearly labeled as such.

“Handout” imagery

“Handouts” are photos or video provided to news outlets from governments, companies, agents, etc. Most news outlets make clear to viewers the source of these images, which are often intended to make politicians, executives, etc. look good. In some cases, including photos released by the White House, major news organizations have refused to use such material when their own photographers were available and willing to cover the story, but banned in favor of an official photographer.

Generic photos and video

A special problem with photos and video is using generic images to illustrate specific stories. For instance, if an airplane crashes, it may be easy to find generic photos or video of a plane of that type in the colors of that airline.

Some editors believe it’s fine to use that image with a story on the crash; they don’t believe a viewer would expect that the plane shown is the actual plane that crashed. Others believe such an image should not be used with the crash story unless it’s clear from the caption that the photo is generic — that it’s a plane “of the type that crashed.”

Music tracks

Sometimes producers of video pieces will add a music track in an effort to tie the story together and add a mood. This can be effective and harmless, especially in a light piece. However, questions have been raised about whether such tracks can amount to “emotional manipulation.” Particularly if the music elicits feelings of sympathy, sadness or fear, it may amount to an inappropriate expression of opinion.

Images from social media

When using photos or videos from social media, or submitted by the public to your news organization, you want to consider ethical and legal issues (such as getting permission to use a photo and verifying that the person who used or submitted it has rights to it). Ethical issues to consider in using images from social media include verification that they are presented factually, whether the images have been manipulated in ways that your standards would not allow, and providing proper credit.

The Verification Handbook has helpful chapters on verifying images and videos.

The primary author of this section is Thomas Kent.