The Digital Journalist
Some Things Never Change

by Karen Slattery

When J. Brandon Nightengale was assigned to write a paper for a class at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Ventura, Calif., this term, he probably never dreamed he would be part of this month's "Ethics" column.

Brandon wrote to us asking a series of questions regarding photojournalism ethics. His questions, and others like them, are at the heart of this essay, which examines the direction that photojournalism ethics have taken since the first issue of The Digital Journalist appeared in 1997.

But before turning to that discussion, it is necessary to say a few words about what has not changed.

The professional journalist is still obligated to inform the public with integrity, independence and accountability. These obligations arise out of the moral principles that require all of us to be truthful and just. These fundamental principles are enduring. They offer a stable reference point, a place at which to begin elaborating on the responsibilities of the journalist struggling to stay righted in a vast sea of change.

Brandon's questions fall into two categories: technology and politics. A third category, economics, should be added. All three categories put pressures on the photojournalist to behave in one way and not another.

Brandon's first question addressed the skepticism that naturally arises when photojournalists use digital technology to create and manipulate their work. Photoshop and similar programs have been available for a long time; most photographers work in electronic darkrooms these days. Questions from the photochemical era about burning and dodging pictures seem almost quaint, since the possibilities related to digital tweaking appear endless. In the future, with an eye toward the truth, we will continue to raise questions about what kinds of alterations are morally acceptable when it comes to digital photography.

The changing technology has also raised an important question about who counts as a journalist. The boundaries of journalism have been blurred in the past decade by ready access to digital equipment and the World Wide Web. These days, almost anyone can publish news content to a mass audience; the question of who counts as a journalist is much more complex. The answer may affect the way that all journalists do their work.

The role that government plays in journalism is also on Brandon's mind, particularly as it relates to censorship of wartime news and information. Journalists are using technology that was unavailable in previous wars, videophones for example, and this creates problems for a government that wants to protect its troops and war strategies.

In addition, many journalists work for news organizations that are based in the United States, but marketing a news product worldwide. These journalists must balance their loyalties to the nation, given that they may be American citizens, with their loyalties to an international audience. This area of professional responsibility is just one of the many that have arisen with the increasing globalization of the news media.

The fact that the government is increasingly withholding important information from the public continues to put photojournalists in difficult positions. Refusing to let photojournalists shoot pictures of the caskets of soldiers returning to the United States, in large numbers, is but one instance. How far is the press willing to go to get story details that are important to citizens? How far should the press be willing to go?

Brandon also asked which ethics questions will become more relevant during the next decade. Technology and political pressures cannot be separated from the economic issues that are becoming more and more pressing for journalists. Journalists are continually being asked to do more with less, and that leads to compromise.

The emphasis on the bottom line, which manifests itself in an increasingly intense effort to deliver a greater volume of news "product" while minimizing costs, influences what news gets into newspapers and on TV. Coverage of what an audience wants to know (which is presumed to attract and maintain viewers and readers) is done at the expense of information that the public needs to know in order to effectively self govern. All sorts of moral problems arise as a result of that compromise. The increasing emphasis on profit has been forcing journalists to ultimately decide whether to serve the public's interest or make a news organization wealthier. Many good journalists have chosen to leave the field. It is a major problem that has reached a crisis level.

Meanwhile, professional publications like The Digital Journalist and professional organizations like the National Press Photographers Association must continue their efforts to educate practicing and aspiring photojournalists about why a free press is necessary. These publications and organizations must also publicize the efforts that journalists make to keep the press free and responsible.

So, in summary, Brandon, the field is changing. The winds of change are at gale force. But the principles that have guided professional responsibility are as solid and steady as they have always been. Nothing has changed regarding the need for responsible journalism.

Thanks for asking.

© Karen Slattery

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.