Lynching is no joking matter in the United States. News manager Robert Selkow found himself in the middle of a controversy over a Halloween display featuring three figures hanging from a tree.
“I got a photo on a smartphone,” recalled Selkow, who is site manager and news director of clarksvillenow.com, an online hyperlocal website affiliated with six radio stations serving Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky. “It looked like a scene out of (the movie) ‘Mississippi Burning,’ black figures being hanged.”
He said it turned out to be “the most powerful image we ever published.”
Selkow contacted Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists in facing this sensitive issue, and agreed to discuss details of the case publicly.
The offensive Halloween display was in the residential area of the Fort Campbell military base on the Kentucky-Tennessee border near Clarksville.
War is famously shrouded in a fog that journalists are supposed to penetrate.
Since war correspondents and photographers sometimes risk their lives in combat zones, you’d think they’d want to get it right. Otherwise, it’s just propaganda.
In that case, the fog just gets thicker. But it is a way to make a buck as media cut staff and rely on freelancers.
The recent Brussels bombings is an example. A 21-year-old Palestinian photographer triggered strong social media reactions. When a Fox News video showed him posing a girl at a makeshift memorial, an outcry arose against the unethical practice of staging photographs.
The Guardian, a British national newspaper, identified the photographer as Khaled Al Sabbah, who lives in Brussels and has won photography awards for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The newspaper also quoted Michael Kamber, a former New York Times staff photographer and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, after he saw the video.
“It’s one more example of a photographer doing something that destroys public trust in the media,” said Kamber.
Not many codes of ethics urge journalists to “take all possible measures to mitigate the odds of a crash.”
But the Professional Society of Drone Journalists code does that, and says its guidelines “should be viewed as a layer of additional ethical considerations atop the traditional professional and ethical expectations of a journalist in the 21st century.”
Drones can provide images and data for “immersion journalism”, according to a blog post that predicts virtual reality tools will allow audiences to experience the sights and sounds of news events as if actually there.
The door to this future is slowly opening as the Federal Aviation Administration works to strike a balance between assuring public safety and supporting the commercial drone industry.
The Killeen Daily Herald in Texas reports that the FAA has acted on more than 3,000 petitions seeking approval for U.S. drone operations.
Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 gives the FAA authority to grant certificates for the commercial use of small, unmanned aerial vehicles. Journalists already use drones to cover newsworthy events, the newspaper points out.
The FAA, meanwhile, is moving cautiously. Each month, it says, the FAA receives more than 100 reports from pilots and others who see what appear to be unmanned aircraft flying close to an airport or manned aircraft.
“It’s become a serious safety concern for the agency, and a potential security issue for the Department of Homeland Security,” the agency said in a statement. As a result, the FAA is working with other agencies to develop technology to detect and identify “rogue drones” and their operators.
A 2014 FAA report denies that the U.S. lags behind other countries in approving commercial drones, adding: “we want to strike the right balance of requirements for (unmanned aircraft systems) to help foster growth in an emerging industry with a wide range of potential uses, but also keep all airspace users and people on the ground safe.”
The Professional Society of Drone Journalists claims members from the Boston Globe, ESPN and Reuters in its global ranks, along with freelancers and academics. “Established in 2011, PSDJ is the first international organization dedicated to establishing the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism,” its mission statement reads. “We develop small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) for journalists, and explore best practices to deploy them for a variety of reporting needs, including investigative, disaster, weather, sports and environmental journalism.”
Its membership roster includes individuals with an interest in drones, and companies that manufacture them. So what is it primarily, a group that represents drone manufacturers or a drone advocacy group?
“I am under the impression it is an advocacy group,” said Mark LaBoyteaux, owner and operator of Hawkeye Media based in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. “But I haven’t heard from them for two or three years,” adding “I thought it evaporated.”
It started, he recalled, when a group of journalists who wanted to use drones for news photography sought permission from the FAA. Instead, the agency sent cease and desist letters to them.
“I got a letter from the FAA,” said LaBoyteaux. As a result, “they wanted to form a group that could work legally with the FAA and use photography for news gathering.”
LaBoyteaux uses five “multi-copters” for aerial photography and video photography. He understands that the FAA is relaxing its rules on drones “to let them be used for commercial purposes.”
On its website, the Professional Society of Drone Journalists espouses a “layered approach” to form its code of ethics, including traditional journalism ethics, privacy, sanctity of law and public spaces, safety and newsworthiness.
Drone operators must be adequately trained, according to the guidelines, and the equipment must be suitable for safe and controlled flight in adequate weather conditions.
Newsworthiness is the foundation of the group’s “hierarchy of ethics.” Drones should be used only after careful deliberation. “The investigation must be of sufficient journalistic importance to risk using a potentially harmful aerial vehicle,” the statement says. “Do not use a drone if the information can be gathered by other, safer means.”
“Our aim is to get beyond hobby-grade equipment and to establish what options are available and workable to produce high quality video journalism using various types of (unmanned aerial vehicles) and camera setups,” CNN Senior Vice President David Vigilante says in a statement.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta adds: “Unmanned aircraft offer news organizations significant opportunities. We hope this agreement with CNN and the work we are doing with other news organizations and associations will help safely integrate unmanned news gathering technology and operating procedures into the National Airspace System.”
With this kind of high-level cooperation, drone operators might declare they have liftoff.
Since all the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists consultants teach on campuses across the country, it seemed logical to ask them how they and their students reacted to events that played out at the University of Missouri over press freedoms and protests over racial tensions.
An earlier AdviceLine blog post focused on what appeared to be an attack on First Amendment press freedoms when faculty member Melissa Click attempted to banish two student photographers from the protest scene, for which she later apologized.
Hugh Miller, assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, took what he called a contrarian view.
“I disagree,” said Miller, citing a lawyer friend who pointed out that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “is a restriction imposed upon the state, not upon individuals…. It imposes no restrictions on individuals.
“Reporters are perfectly free to jam a microphone in my face – no government authority can prevent them from doing so. And I am perfectly free to tell such reporters to get stuffed if I don’t want to talk or have them around. In so doing I do not violate the First Amendment. The First Amendment is not, IMHO [in my humble opinion], a license for journalists to demand, and get, access to coverage.
“Whether the contested access is on public property makes little difference to the First Amendment issue (though it may be important in a property rights sense). Nor does the First Amendment impose duties or obligations upon individuals to afford journalists the opportunity to cover them.
Amid the chaos of student and faculty protests over racial tensions at the University of Missouri, student photographers Tim Tai and Mark Schierbecker stood out as young men who understood their First Amendment rights to photograph and videotape the historic event in a public place.
Sadly, Tai and Schierbecker were badgered, harassed and bullied by students and faculty while trying to do their jobs.
Schierbecker videotaped Tai as he was harangued, surrounded and pushed by a crowd of students and older individuals who held their hands in front of his camera and would not allow him to move forward.
“We will just block you,” says one. “You need to go.”
Others chanted, “hey, hey, ho, ho. Reporters have got to go.”
Another says, “You gotta go, bro. You lost this battle, bro. Just back up.”
To his credit, Tai stood his ground and explained patiently, “The First Amendment protects your right to be here and mine.” He added, “I’ve got a job to do.”
Killing the messenger takes new meaning when you see it live, in living color, as happened in the deaths of a Virginia television news reporter and her cameraman.
WDBJ correspondent Alison Parker was conducting an on-air interview in a Moneta, Va., shopping center when she and the photographer, Adam Ward, were shot and killed by a disgruntled former colleague who also videotaped the attack and put it on social media.
The New York Daily News gave the murders front-page display, in very graphic detail than some TV outlets shunned.
Killings on video are increasingly common these days. Journalists are among those targeted now, becoming victims and not just reporters of events. Parker and Ward’s names are now added to a list that included James Foley and Daniel Pearl.
Tech-savvy killers use social media and the internet these days to show their crimes.
The Islamic State group released a video in 2014 showing Foley, clad in an orange gown, kneeling on the ground next to a man dressed in black holding a knife. Foley makes a short statement and then is decapitated.
In 2002, Pearl, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, disappeared while on assignment in Karachi, Pakistan. Video shown around the world via the Internet showed Arab extremists cutting his throat, then decapitating the reporter.
In this world of social media, terrorists don’t need reporters to tell their message. Terrorists can do that themselves now, and one way of doing that is killing reporters.
Photo: AP photo/freejamesfoley.org, Nicole Tung (inset).
By Casey Bukro
James Foley was an American photojournalist who captured the gruesome images of savage warfare, until he became one of those images himself.
Foley, 40, dressed in prisoner orange with a shaved head, is seen kneeling next to a masked, black-clad man holding a knife. Kidnapped in Syria almost two years ago, Foley seems to grimace as the masked man clutches his shirt from behind.
A video posted on YouTube, then taken down, reportedly shows Foley decapitated, his bloody head detached from his body and resting on his back. Two U.S. officials said they believe the video is authentic.
Journalistically, one of the issues in reporting on Foley is whether the grim photo, which seems to show the journalist in the last moments of his life, should have been published.
The New York Post and the New York Daily News gave the photo front-page exposure, causing Washington Post reporter Abby Phillip to ask if the tabloids had gone “too far by printing gruesome images of James Foley’s execution.”
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages sensitivity in the use of photographs involving those caught up by tragedy or grief, and “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”
For tabloids, that can be a challenge. The rule seems to be the more shocking, the better, and big images are best
This is not the first time the New York Post is seen as going “too far.” On Dec. 4, 2012, it published a cover photo of a man desperately trying to climb up on the platform of the New York City subway after a panhandler allegedly pushed him onto the tracks.
The man in the photo is moments from death as he looks at the train bearing down on him.
The photo appeared with the words, “this man is about to die,” and “doomed.” It caused outrage among those who thought it was heartless to publish such a photo. Some thought the photographer should have helped the doomed man, instead of taking his picture.
Shock value has always been a tool of the trade for tabloid journalism, and, to some extent its younger media relative, online journalism.
What does it mean these days to “go too far”? Is that idea passé?
There was a time when the personal lives of American presidents were off limits. Clearly, rules change.
What do you think? Is shock value just a hangover from tabloid journalism and outmoded, or justified at a time when movies and television trade in sex and sensationalism? Are we just old-fashioned when we cringe from photos of men about to die?
Journalists from three organizations, including SPJ, are pondering writing or rewriting codes of ethics. What should they say about shock value in the news?
It was great to see ethical issues come up Friday in a Twitter chat about doing journalism with mobile devices.
Katy Culver, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin and visiting faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, moderates biweekly #EdShift chats for PBS MediaShift on innovation in journalism education. Much of Friday’s chat, involving both journalists and journalism professors, focused on tips and tools for mobile reporting. But Culver, who is also associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at Wisconsin, included a question about ethical concerns.
The tweets in response addressed both specific challenges and broader points about navigating the ethics of mobile journalism.
A reporter from Appleton, Wisconsin, raised an issue in covering accidents that comes with the instant capability of mobile devices:
@kbculver We're careful at wreck scenes with license plates and identifying victims before authorities can make contact #edshift
Steve Buttry, who does training for Digital First Media, pointed to challenges related to accuracy. They are connected both with size and features of mobile devices and the sense of urgency that goes with mobile reporting.
A6: Accuracy is a challenge in every circumstance. Accuracy challenges on mobile include big thumbs (mine) & autocorrect. #edshift
In only a few words, these journalists highlighted a range of ethical challenges in mobile journalism. A radio reporter from Washington, D.C., noted the broader issue of the great power of these small tools and the responsibility that goes with it:
A6: Ethics are MORE imp now. Harder to put genie back in bottle if you get facts wrong. Powerful tool in your hand. Use w carel #edshift
I don’t think we’ve received any calls on the Ethics AdviceLine about issues in mobile journalism, but we’d love to be a sounding board for journalists thinking through decisions about reporting and editing on their phones.
Let’s start with a hoary cliche: A picture is worth a thousand words.
Think of photos that stick in your mind: The Hindenburg zeppelin wrapped in flames; dead soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg; Robert Capa’s D-Day Invasion images; the Iwo Gima flag-raising by Joe Rosenthal; the Beatles; Muhammad Ali; Marilyn Monroe; Elizabeth Taylor; that Afghan girl with haunting eyes in National Geographic; Einstein and Picasso, to name a few.
They are iconic images, in part because they are believed to be accurate portrayals of people and events. Some of those people are famous because they are so photogenic. You want to stare at them.
That makes the relationship between photographers and their audience important, especially now when pictures are vital to covering the news, and when technology makes it so easy to alter images.
It was not considered a big deal a decade or more ago. But now it is, because accuracy in photography is seen as important as accuracy in reporting.
That point was made by the Associated Press when it cut ties with Pulitzer prize-winning freelance photographer Narciso Contreras for altering a picture. He admitted that he edited out a video camera from the bottom left corner of a photo of a fighter holding a rifle.
The Guardian said the “sacking” seemed “very draconian.”
The Associated Press did not think so. Brian Schwaner, AP bureau chief in New Orleans, said:
” AP is quite strict on its requirements for unaltered material, even photos of only marginal value. For example, a few weeks ago the flack for a political candidate sent us a rather standard mugshot for our files, for use during the election. Our bureau photographer took a look at it and was suspicious. After running some tests, he discovered it had been heavily PhotoShopped. The flack was informed and we rejected the photo.
“So the scrutiny ranges from the basics – like this simple mugshot – all the way up to celeb shots and battlefield photos.”
That’s the way it’s done these days, although, ironically, it’s a time when news organizations cut their photo staffs as a cost-saving measure. That means more reliance on freelancers. Contreras was a freelancer, and maybe that’s part of the message.
That squirmable moment comes when a journalist racing to get it fast, discovers that he got it wrong.
The stomach lurches, and if it’s bad enough, you might even throw up.
Think the Richard Jewell story. Or two innocent by-standers shown in a front-page photo as possible Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Or the man falsely identified as the Washington Navy Yard shooter because his identification card was found at the scene of 12 murders in Philadelphia.
“Verify before you villify,” says Ben L. Kaufman in CityBeat.Com, recalling the experience of Rollie Chance, mistakenly identified by NBC and CBS as the Navy Yard shooter. Chance said the falsehood took a toll on him.
At least Chance was cleared quickly, unlike the case of Richard Jewell. He was a security guard portrayed as an heroic first responder at the 1966 Olympic Park bombing which took one life and injured more then 100. Then Jewell became the bombing suspect and was identified, but not charged, in what had been described as a “media circus.”
Jewell was cleared by the federal government after nearly three months of coverage that often focused on him, his appearance, personality and his background. Almost a decade later, Eric Rudolph, a violent anti-abortionist, pleaded guilty to the bombing. Jewell died in 2007.
Looking back on that episode, a New York Times reporter, Kevin Sack, who covered the Atlanta bombing, told of his frustration when the Times executive editor at the time, Joseph Lelyveld, ruled against naming Jewell in the newspaper, while the Atlanta Journal and other media named him.
Later, the reporter praised Lelyveld for his “rabbinical wisdom” in resisting heavy competitive pressure to name Jewell as a suspect.
No rabbinical wisdom appeared to be involved when the New York Post ran a front page photo of two men, calling them “Bag Men” and saying they were being sought by authorities in the April Boston Marathon bombing. The men later sued the tabloid for defamation.
Three people died and an estimated 264 were injured in the April bombing, in which brothers Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev later were identified as the suspects. Tamerlan was killed by police and Dzhokar was wounded before his capture.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says “test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.” Good advice.