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Publishing Controversial Photographs: To Be or Not To Be? Essay

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Updated: Aug 3rd, 2021

Introduction

Nowadays, journalists often publish content that may offend their audiences: photos and videos of bombings and killings, fake news, content created on the troll farms. Few people adhere to the fact that such information violates ethical principles of journalism. This work aims to evaluate the decision of a photojournalist John Harte and managing editor Robert Bentley to publish a photograph of a family mourning over the body of their drowned son.

Case Raview

In 1984, a photojournalist for the Californian John Harte found himself at the scene of an accident when a 5-year-old boy Edward Romero drowned in Hart Park Lake. Harte took some pictures of the rescue operation, including an image capturing the moment when the rescuers found the body of a drowned boy and showed it to the family (Green, 1985). Managing editor Robert Bentley approved the publication of a photograph along with an article about a drowned boy. Although the Californian never published dead bodies, Bentley decided to violate this rule. On the next day after the publication, a wave of the readers’ criticism fell on the Californian: they received more than 500 letters, 300 calls, and 80 terminations during the one day. Bentley had to apologize for the decision to publish the photograph.

Harte was sure that his editor was wrong to apologize. In an interview for the Chicago Tribune, Harte stated: “The picture should have run… I am very sorry that little boy died, but I am proud of the shot” (Green, 1985, para. 14). He emphasized that the Californian was not a sensationalistic paper, and there have been a lot of drownings in the Hart Park Lake area that year. In the month that followed the month of the photo publication, the drowning statistics decreased dramatically from fourteen to only two people.

After the photograph was published in the Californian, Harte sent it to the Associated Press. The photograph was then nominated for the Associated Press Photo of the Year and won the nomination (Harte, 2014). Thus, an ethical dilemma arose whether this photograph should have been published. On the one hand, the publication offended some readers and violated the privacy of the grieving family; on the other hand, it could have saved at least 12 lives and was recognized as a masterpiece of journalism.

Ethical Problems and Broken Principles

Firstly, the compliance with the ethical principles of journalism should be analyzed. According to Clifford, Fackler, Richardson, and Kreshel (2016), journalists should adhere to the principles of “decency and basic fairness,” “redeeming the social value,” and “respect for personal dignity” when making controversial decisions (p. 120). Researchers note that these are “three moral principles that undergird ethics of privacy for newspeople” (Clifford et al., 2016, p. 120). Secondly, the external factors, the emotional side of the issue, and the traditional behavior of journalists under similar circumstances should be considered when finding a solution to the ethical dilemma.

Harte claims that the publication aimed to promote water and swimming safety. He was hurt deeply when the audience of the ceremony started to insult him after he left the stage with the Mark Twain Award for the Associated Press Photo of the Year in his hands. Harte (2014) recalls: “It shook me up. I was young and hoped that someday I might move on and work for one of these people” (para. 6). Therefore, it is highly likely that the 27-year old photojournalist did not violate the principle of decency and basic fairness.

The principle of redeeming social value was not violated as well, due to the significant decrease in the drowning statistics. However, Harte did violate the principle of respect for personal dignity (Clifford et al., 2016). The publication of the photograph was not approved by the family members portrayed, which is a violation of the ethical principles of journalism. Harte was required to obtain permission, but he did not take the risk of bothering the family. Nonetheless, Harte should have talked to them later, when the photograph was nominated for the Associated Press Photo of the Year.

After all, it was the grief of the Romero’s family that made the Californian readers more aware of water and swimming safety. Harte (2014) casually noted on his blog: “Eloy Romero, the boy’s father, told the Californian that he had seen the photo, but was so grief-stricken that he could not care about a picture” (para. 1). Yet, nobody knows so far whether privacy interference had any psychological effect on the family members.

There were no external factors that could affect the decision to publish the photo. It was published in the Californian and then re-published in the Associated Press solely on the initiative of John Harte. No one and nothing put pressure on Harte in this regard (Harte, 2014). The fact that the photograph was published to promote the water and swimming safety could not be an external stimulus for inevitable publication.

When evaluating the emotional side of the issue, Emerson’s concept of privacy should be considered. Researchers note that Professor Thomas Emerson formed the following idea: “A right to privacy attempts to draw a line between the individual and the collective, between self and society” (Clifford et al., 2016, p. 119). BBC News published a fair share of stories about people who lost their loved ones in accidents. They were ready to share their experiences with the public and perceived it as a tribute to the deceased. Moreover, a discussion of the personal tragedy with a journalist helped people to find the inner strength to move on. Of course, all the publications were made with their consent.

It will be interesting to consider what journalists usually do when making controversial decisions. Generally, editorials do not publish photographs of the dead bodies, as well as other images that may cause readers’ concern, and the Californian was no exception (Green, 1985). Managing editor Robert Bentley made a personal decision to publish the photograph. On the next day, after the publication caused a wave of readers’ criticism, he had to apologize for this decision.

Nonetheless, later, he proposed to nominate a photograph for the Pulitzer Prize. Bentley admitted in an interview for the Chicago Tribune: “The Pulitzer Prize is given for journalistic and technical excellence. It is not given for reader approval” (Green, 1985, para. 19). The editor emphasized: “I think the photograph should never have been published. I also think it should be awarded the Pulitzer Prize” (Green, 1985, para. 21). Associated Press decided to publish the photograph and nominated it for the Associated Press Photo of the Year. According to the editorial policy of the Associated Press, the Californian editorial board was entirely responsible for the publication since the photo was first published there. Harte (2014) recalls: “The controversy over the photo’s publication split opinion in the industry, with most editors siding with my editor… and most photographers believing the photo should have been published” (para. 6). Perhaps the Associated Press expected Harte to talk to family members portrayed on the photograph before the ceremony was held, but he remained unconvinced.

Finally, some tribute to unknown people who became a part of the issue should be paid. These are readers of the Californian, who readily expressed their opinion and the editorial office (Clifford et al., 2016). Of course, editors have their human right to make mistakes. They have to adapt their ethics and morality to the objective realities continually. Decisions to publish certain disturbing details are usually made after taking into account numerous factors. In this case, the editorial policy of the Californian did not affect the decision of the managing editor.

Conclusion

Given all of the aspects outlined above, the managing editor Robert Bentley should have never published this photograph indeed. The only alternative could be Harte’s photograph depicting rescuers who were standing in the water and searching for a body since rescuers were not the participants of the tragedy (Harte, 2014). John Harte and Robert Bentley may have a different opinion on this case as well as the editors of the Associated Press and photo correspondents that supported the decision to publish the photograph. Probably these people believe that since the photograph is a product of the creative work of the photojournalist, it is his property. Still, the photograph is equally the property of the people portrayed. The publication of an image without their consent is a violation of the ethical principles of journalism.

Thus, an ethical evaluation was made considering the decision to publish a photograph of a family mourning over the body of their drowned son. The issue was evaluated in terms of the ethical principles of journalism and analyzed under the SAD model for moral reasoning. The decision not to publish this photo was made since its publication violates the ethical principle of respect for personal dignity, and Emerson’s concept of privacy.

References

Clifford G. C., Fackler, M., Richardson K. B., & Kreshel P. (2016). Media ethics: Cases and moral reasoning. London, UK: Taylor & Francis.

Greene, B. (1985). Chicago Tribune. Web.

Harte, J. (2014). . Web.

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IvyPanda. (2021, August 3). Publishing Controversial Photographs: To Be or Not To Be? https://ivypanda.com/essays/publishing-controversial-photographs-to-be-or-not-to-be/

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IvyPanda. (2021, August 3). Publishing Controversial Photographs: To Be or Not To Be? Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/publishing-controversial-photographs-to-be-or-not-to-be/

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"Publishing Controversial Photographs: To Be or Not To Be?" IvyPanda, 3 Aug. 2021, ivypanda.com/essays/publishing-controversial-photographs-to-be-or-not-to-be/.

1. IvyPanda. "Publishing Controversial Photographs: To Be or Not To Be?" August 3, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/publishing-controversial-photographs-to-be-or-not-to-be/.


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IvyPanda. "Publishing Controversial Photographs: To Be or Not To Be?" August 3, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/publishing-controversial-photographs-to-be-or-not-to-be/.

References

IvyPanda. 2021. "Publishing Controversial Photographs: To Be or Not To Be?" August 3, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/publishing-controversial-photographs-to-be-or-not-to-be/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Publishing Controversial Photographs: To Be or Not To Be'. 3 August.

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