McGuire on Media

Are my rules for publishing controversial photos obsolete?

My friend and temporary colleague here at the Cronkite School, Ellen Soeteber, got word of a set of rules I use to teach students about using tough, controversial photos in newspapers. She asked for a copy and I gave it to her, but not without some soul-searching and musing.

The list, which I call Tim’s baker’s dozen, is below. This is an original interpretation, but as any ethics enthusiast can see it borrows spiritually and literally from Poynter, perhaps Media Ethics: Issues and Cases by Patterson and Wilkins, and certainly from all the smart people I’ve worked with over the years.

The striking thing about the list is whether or not it’s at all relevant in a “You-tube'”crowd-sourced media environment. Like so many artifacts from the careers of my generation the list reflects a time when pontificating editors decided what readers should and could consume. In a “pull” world where citizens provide much of the news and decide whether and when  they want to consume it, the editor’s role in making decisions on propriety has been diminished to the point of extinction.

The troubling question for ethics professors these days is whether we should teach from lists like this or recognize that the Wild, Wild West has won and say the standards are yet to be determined by the community?

I think abdication is a bad idea, and that’s the decision the Cronkite School made when it decided to make ethics a requirement in our school. Our students will face a vastly different media world. We argue that values matter, and the winning media players will subscribe to important ethical precepts. That will matter to audiences.

We hope students will adapt the ethical principals that have guided journalism for years to the emerging media environment. I am hopeful lists like this one will be guides to the future and not mere artifacts of the ink on trees era. 

Tim’s baker’s dozen list of things to remember when you’re deciding whether to publish a potentially controversial photo.

       1. Can the reader handle this picture and his Wheaties? Don’t shock or offend just for fun or just because you can. If a picture is going to make readers sick and angry all the flags have to go up.  This must be discussed.

     2. Dead bodies carry a presumption that you don’t use it. All the flags have to go up.  This must be discussed.

     3. Ask whether this photo is going to embarrass or shame an innocent person or a minor.

     4. Does the controversial photo have great power?  To overcome the above concerns the photo must convey its content powerfully.

      5. If the flags have gone up and there is a discussion, will publishing this photo serve a larger purpose and contribute to the common good in some way? (This is a large concept question.)

      6. Does this actual photo communicate something larger about a person, group or movement? (This question is about this specific photo not a concept.)

       7. How big is the event surrounding this picture? The Oklahoma City bombing or Sept. 11 carry far more import than a gory accident on Mill and University.

       8. Who is involved  in the event? ASU President Michael Crow and Dean Callahan would change the University and Mill accident significantly.

        9. If you’re struggling with the decision, do the distance test.  Would you publish this photo if it happened in your dorm rather than Germany or Boston?

       10. If you decide to publish, take every possible step to preserve the dignity of the subject while selecting pictures that preserve as much of the power the photographer captured as possible.

        11. Make sure you can write your public justification and you are prepared for the first phone call BEFORE you publish.

        12. Share that written justification with diverse groups in the newsroom: women, people of color, young old etc.

        13. Don’t be a wimp!  The easy thing to do is to not publish any controversial photos.  The reader is not well-served by that stance either. Be sensitive and cautious but don’t crawl into a hole either.  If you make a dumb decision the public will learn about the photo and will be angry you kept it from them.