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Bakersfield Californian Romero Drowning Photo Essay

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Updated: Jan 16th, 2022


The notion of “doing almost anything” to get a picture varies across situations. Therefore, one of the essential skills that a photojournalist must possess is the capability of making decisions at a moment’s notice. This will range from the scene to photograph, how to photograph, and the reason for photographing it. Furthermore, besides photographic decisions, the photojournalist has to be concurrently thinking about the scene, the effect of their presence on it, and their interaction with every individual that is present. There are times when the photojournalist might judge that it is one step too far to take a photo, or too dangerous to take the photo. What is constant is that in all these situations, the photojournalist has to understand the end goal. Hence, the question, “Is the image worth it?” As a result, several ethical principles have been set in place to guide photojournalism. This paper uses the situation definition, analysis, and definition (S.A.D.) model for moral reasoning to explain whether John Harte, a photographer of the Bakersfield Californian, was morally obligated to take a picture of Edward Romero. It will achieve so by answering several questions. How far should a publication go to achieve the best emotional effect, be it through a story or photograph? Should a family’s right to grieve privately be violated because it is considered newsworthy?

Situation definition

The picture of the five-year-old Edward Romero taken by John Harte was among the most controversial images in photojournalism. The photo captured the dead Edward’s face and the top of his torso; however, the rest of his body was covered in a black vinyl bag. Kneeling beside him was his weeping father, and standing behind his father were his brother and mother who were also grieving. The picture was published by the Californian, which ironically had a policy of not publishing dead bodies. The Managing editor of Bakersfield Californian, Robert Bentley, claimed that the decision to run the picture was based on warning other families on the potential dangers of the lake. It is this kind of explanation that raises more questions than it answers, among them: Were there other picture alternatives that John Harte took? And if there was, why did the media outlet publish that specific photo?

Analysis of the situation


Several principles and values will be used to examine the ethical context of John Harte’s controversial photograph. For instance, when it comes to values, it is evident that Harte and Bentley did not value the Californian policy of not publishing images of dead bodies. Furthermore, Harte and Bentley did not value the sensibilities of their audience. This is illustrated when Bentley owned his mistake and wrote a column in the newspaper apologizing to the offended readers.



According to the Ethical Journalism Network (2019), one of the five core principles of journalism is humanity. It states that although journalists may sometimes publish hurtful content, they should be conscious of the impact such content has on the lives of others. In this case, the vulnerable subjects solely consisted of Edward’s family. Edward’s father admits not to have been disturbed by the published images of his son. Moreover, although the picture greatly angered some readers, the number of people drowning in the lake significantly reduced.


The right to privacy is an essential element to factor into the analysis of the situation (Nipp, 2015). Upon integrating Aristotle’s mean into the ethical issue of the right to privacy, it is essential to establish a moral balance. On the one hand, there was running a photo that risked the privacy of the family. On the other hand, there was no publishing anything about the tragedy, regardless of the high number of drowning cases in that lake. The Californian should have resorted to establishing a middle ground, which was to publish an alternative photograph.


According to Kant’s categorical imperative, a rule is a rule (Nipp, 2015). This is illustrated when Harte and Bentley violated the company’s policy of not publishing images of dead bodies. As a result, they violated the moral principle of duty. Though Harte and Bentley claimed they had a clean intent at heart, i.e., promoting water safety, several alternatives could have been employed other than publishing that specific photo.

Defending decisions based on moral theory

Most photojournalists are usually at crossroads when it comes to navigating between creating the most compelling pictures and being empathetic and sensitive towards the needs of vulnerable subjects (Wilkins & Patterson, 2008). For instance, Californians received hundreds of complaints from people including threats. These offended readers believed that the Californian should have respected the dignity of Romero’s family. More so, it is expected that as a human being, Harte should have empathized with the family. His job as a human being should have outweighed his role as a photojournalist. This is seemingly rather an uncontroversial position; however, in the world of photojournalism, it is an unsettling question. This is because photojournalists are individuals who are interested in all the aspects of other people’s lives, whether, happy, sad, tragic, or dramatic (Hodges, 1986). They act as witnesses; therefore, it is their objective to document events.

Moreover, I believe that the decisions that photojournalists make revolve around keeping the ‘right distance.’ In this context, the right distance is simply the distance journalists put between themselves and a story (VII Photo Agency, 2015). The distance also allows photojournalists to tell a story being observed without altering it. This is at par with the NPAA’s code of ethics which cautions photographers against altering or influencing events (VII Photo Agency, 2015).

Unpopular opinions also require forthright presentation (Martinson, 1995). Therefore, the question of whether the Californian was right to publish Edward’s photo is another issue altogether. Newspapers have the right to publish images including horrifying ones. For instance, pictures of drowned bodies that were in an aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (McGonigal, 2015). The photos were published as a society could learn from them. Therefore, a photo of a boy who drowned in a lake can rise to a similar level. However, the Californians had several “friendly” picture alternatives, all sending the same message of the present dangers of the lake. Furthermore, Harte and Bentley had violated the principles and values guiding ethical decision-making in photojournalism. Therefore, considering this new perspective, I can conclude that it was morally wrong to run that specific photo.


Photojournalists usually come across several ethical dilemmas that place them in a position in which they have to choose between embracing their human or career aspect. The publishing of horrifying photos is not warranted in every scenario. It is only justified instances where the images play a role in educating the public. From the above S.A.D analysis, it is clear that John Harte violated the ethical values and principles guiding photojournalism. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Californians had several other alternative images of the tragedy that we’re sending a similar message to the public. Therefore, from my perspective, I would have opted for a safer alternative such as alternatives one, two, and three.


  1. Ethical Journalism Network. (2019). The 5 principles of ethical journalism.
  2. Hodges, L. (1986). Defining press responsibility: A functional approach. D. Elliot (Ed.). Newburry Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  3. Martinson, D. (1995). Ethical public relations practitioners must not ignore ‘Public interest’. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 10(4), 210-222.
  4. McGonigal, C. (2015). . Web.
  5. Nipp, K. (2015). [Blog post]. Web.
  6. Wilkins, P., & Patterson, L. (2008). Media ethics: Issues and cases (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
  7. VII Photo Agency. (2015). . Web.
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