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Photojournalism Ethics Research Paper


Traditionally, the issue of ethics in journalism used to be discussed from an essentially idealistic point of view – that is, journalists were expected to proceed with their professional activities in a socially beneficial manner.

In his book American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media, Henry states: “Throughout these years (1900-1930), increasing numbers of American newspapers… adopted their codes of ethics founded chiefly on the idea of seeking truth independent of business, advertising, and political favor to inform the people and improve democracy” (2007, 79).

Nevertheless, as of today, the ‘promotion of democracy’ can no longer be considered as representing journalists’ (and especially photojournalists’) foremost professional agenda. The reason for this is simple – ever since the commercial well-being of published Media became solely dependent on an advertisement, the outdated codes of ethics had automatically ceased applying to these Medias’ functioning.

In the same book, the author confirms a full validity of this suggestion: “But today both the public interest and these ethical codes appear to play an ever-diminishing role in the face of urgent economic imperatives” (2007, 8). Therefore, it is only very naïve people who may continue believing in a code of journalistic ethics as ‘thing in itself’ – nowadays, photojournalism had attained subtleties of a particularly lucrative profit-driven pursuit.

After all, the photo of a half-naked celebrity, dealing with a hangover early in the morning, can be easily sold to tabloid magazines for as much as $30.000. Given the fact that citizens in Western countries continue to grow ever more intellectually marginalized, it makes perfectly good sense for paparazzi to proceed with stalking celebrities – they do it not on the account on their ‘wickedness’, but because there is demand in the society for what they do.

As of today, most photojournalists were able to rid themselves of an illusion that their professional activities should somehow be observant of the notion of ‘good taste’, simply because the presence of a ‘good taste’ in photos reduces these photos’ commercial appeal to the publisher.

As practice shows, it is namely the publishing of graphically realistic and shocking photos, which attract viewing audiences more than anything else does, often despite these audiences’ conscious will. Therefore, while trying to observe certain ethical considerations on the line of executing their professional duties, photojournalists should simply try not to be taking advantage of people’s animalistic instincts too much.

In his article When Should Graphic Photos be Published?, Rogers quotes former photo editor for Newsday Kenneth Irby, whose ideas as to what should account for photojournalistic ethical integrity correlate with our own: “The question becomes, how many dead bodies do you show… If you’re still showing nothing but pictures of dead bodies in the third or fourth day of your coverage then the audience may have the right to complain” (About.Com 2009).

Thus, the discussion as to what should represent the code of professional ethics in the field of photojournalism can no longer revolve around considerations of abstract morality, without regard to the associative circumstances. Nowadays, it matters very little whether a particular photo, meant to be sold to a publisher, can be described as ‘tasteful’ or ‘distasteful’ – all it matters is whether this photo is being genuine or not.

In her article New York Times Removes Digitally Altered Photos, Heald provides us with the insight onto a what today’s publishers perceive as the foremost indication of lack of ethical integrity, or on the part of photojournalists: “The New York Times has removed a slide show from its website after a reader discovered that one of the pictures of an unfinished housing construction project had been digitally altered” (Editors Weblog 2009).

Apparently, the technological realities of today’s living create objective preconditions for photojournalists to consider the utilization of digital editing as the ultimate mean of reaching their professional goals. Such their practice, of course, can hardly be considered ethical in the traditional sense of this word, simply because by digitally altering photos intended for publishing, photojournalists intentionally mislead news-consumers.

In his article The Reality of a Fake Image, Carlson expounds on details of another famous story about photojournalistic deception, which had taken place on pages of Los Angeles Times in 2003: “In 2003, the front page of the Los Angeles Times featured a large photograph depicting a dramatic scene in which a British soldier motions to Iraqi civilians to stay down… The image… was discovered to be a composite of two different images cobbled together by the veteran photographer Brian Walski” (2009, 125).

As a result, Walski was fired, and it is highly unlikely that he would ever be able to find a job as a photojournalist in any other American major newspaper again. Thus, there are many objective reasons to expect that, within the context of formulating a methodological framework of photojournalistic ethics, the notion of ‘genuineness’ will eventually replace the notion of ‘tastefulness’.

In his article Photojournalism in the Age of Scrutiny, Irby outlines the main principles, upon which Time Magazine’s code of photojournalistic ethics is based: “Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene… Pictures of news situations must not be posted” (Poynter Online 2006).

Nevertheless, even though an apparent clarity of Time Magazine’s digitally related rules of photojournalistic integrity implies that other publishers can utilize them as well, this might not necessarily be the case.

The reason for this is simple – photography never ceased being considered art. In its turn, the concept of art implies that its affiliates must be creative individuals, by definition. What it means is that the application of digital altering to photos, intended for publishing, may not be considered a violation of the photojournalistic code of ethics, at least in the legal sense of this word.

The reading of Hancock’s article Ethics in the Age of Digital Manipulation, substantiates a full validity of such our suggestion, as it contains an analysis of few cases when the alleged perpetrators of photojournalistic violation ended up being cleared of charges of professional inadequacy. Ironically enough, one of those cases involved Time Magazine: “In March 2007, Time added a teardrop to the face of former President Ronald Reagan.

Time officials later said the image was a legitimate illustration because the teardrop’s illustrator was listed in the table of contents” (Global Journalist 2009). It is a well-known fact that publishers always chose in favor of most dramatic photographs, especially if these photos are going to be placed on the newspaper’s front page.

Therefore, even though resorting to utilization of digital technology, to increase photos’ emotional appeal, can be seen as one of the most blatant violations of the photojournalistic code of ethics, such practice certainly does make a lot of sense. And, things that make sense should not be referred to as utterly unethical, simply because self-proclaimed guardians of ‘morality’ think so.


As of today, the staff of every major newspaper in America includes digital editors, whose main task is to ensure that the photos intended for publishing are genuine. Nevertheless, as history shows, the tempo of technological progress had always outpaced developments in the domain of professional ethics. This especially appears to be the case nowadays, when the continuous progress in the field of informational technologies had attained clearly defined exponential subtleties.

It is important to understand that the very concept of progress is something that stands in striking opposition to the concept of ethics, as nothing but pleasantly sounding euphemism to the notion of intellectual inflexibility – it is only intellectually inflexible journalists who actively strive to adjust their professional activities to their understanding of what represents ethical/unethical behavior.

Unlike them, open-minded journalists understand perfectly well that, for as long as they go about addressing their professional duties in a country associated with properly functioning market economy, it is namely their ability to provide consumers with a sought-after content, which reflects on their endowment with an acute sense of work-related ethics more than anything else does.

Given the fact that as of today, photojournalism had effectively ceased serving the function of providing people with visual glimpses on politically related news (TV does much more effectively), it would only be natural for photojournalists to think of the concept of professional excellence from essentially utilitarian point of view.

That is, they should consider themselves professionally-ethical for as long as they are being able to provide consumers with highly dramatic and perceivably authentic images of ‘news in making’, regardless of whether these images are being digitally altered or not. After all, since photography is an art – the strict criterion of reflective objectiveness does not apply to it as much as it applies to other journalistic genres.


Carlson, M. “The Reality of a Fake Image” Journalism Practice, 3.2 (2009): 125 – 139.

Hancock, M. “Ethics in the Age of Digital Manipulation”. 2009. Global Journalist. 2010. Web.

Heald, E. “New York Times Removes Digitally Altered Photos”. 2009. Editors Weblog. Web.

Henry, N. American Carnival: Journalism under Siege in an Age of New Media. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Irby, K. “Photojournalism in the Age of Scrutiny”. 2006. Poynter Online. Web.

Rogers, T. “When Should Graphic Photos be Published?” 2009. Web.

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"Photojournalism Ethics." IvyPanda, 14 Apr. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/photojournalism-ethics/.

1. IvyPanda. "Photojournalism Ethics." April 14, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/photojournalism-ethics/.


IvyPanda. "Photojournalism Ethics." April 14, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/photojournalism-ethics/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Photojournalism Ethics." April 14, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/photojournalism-ethics/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Photojournalism Ethics'. 14 April.

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