The Digital Journalist
The Ethics of Staging
February 2005

by Karen Slattery and Erik Ugland

Stories about how photojournalists craft their work are engaging to anyone who is interested in learning more about the process. These stories tell us what the photojournalists value, the methods they use and the standards they set.

But some of the stories can lead to confusion, particularly those that involve instances of staging. For example, Dick Kraus tells a story about a tense moment during an assignment involving Long Island schoolgirls touring Normandy during the anniversary of the D-Day invasion of France. His editor asked for a shot of them visiting a cemetery where Americans were buried. The students were about to board a bus to leave the cemetery when Kraus arrived at the scene. He asked them to walk through a nearby section of graves so that he could get the assigned shot before they left. The picture appeared on page 1 of the next day's edition of Newsday. Anyone who has worked under deadline can appreciate Kraus' feeling of relief when he completed the assignment that he had nearly missed.

On the other hand, who could forget the story about the Dateline piece that contained video of a truck explosion that had been set up? The video was created for a story about faulty gas tanks on some of GM's trucks. Dateline's anchors later read a retraction on air and acknowledged that the network had aired the video despite knowing that it was staged. Several people, including network news President Michael Garter, lost their jobs over the incident.

Both stories involve instances of staging with radically different outcomes. Staging is a particularly knotty problem for both print and television photojournalists. Some argue that staging should never occur. But others argue that, as a practical matter, photographers routinely interfere with reality before shooting a scene. They manipulate lighting, they use techniques that make one camera appear to do the work of two, and they ask subjects to engage in routine tasks so that they can shoot B-roll.

The practice of interfering has been called a slippery slope and it is easy to get caught on the slide down. This issue is especially important for photojournalists because it speaks to truth-telling, which is the heart of the journalist's mission. Tampering with what occurs in front of the camera can deceive readers and viewers, most of whom believe that the photojournalist's professional responsibility is to capture rather than create reality. In this month's column, we'll point out some markers on that slippery slope that will serve as a caution to photojournalists whose job is to get the best photos possible often under difficult circumstances. We will also suggest strategies to help determine whether a photojournalist's actions in getting a shot are morally acceptable. Former CBS Bureau Chief and professor Travis Linn cited three reasons for staging - that is, directing the actions of the subject or subjects of a photograph prior to taking the picture. He was talking about staging for TV news when he laid out the categories, but we believe that they are relevant for both print and television journalists.

The first category involves staging for the purpose of editing. Staging in this category is the least morally problematic. It relates to conventions of visual grammar and includes such things lighting, reverse angle shots, interviews and cutaways. Deception of the audience is possible with this type of staging, but Linn argues that it is merely a byproduct of the actions and not the photojournalist's intent. We believe staging in this category does not generally mislead the audience about the meaning of the event that is being recorded.

The second reason for staging is for the purpose of time. This type of staging often involves a subject being asked to repeat or recreate an action that the photographer was not, or would not be, on the scene to capture. Kraus' story about asking the students to walk around the cemetery is an example of staging that is done for the purpose of time. Had Kraus been on the scene minutes earlier, he would have had the shot he needed without altering the actions of the students that were occurring naturally. The chance that the audience would be misled about the way the event unfolded in front of the camera is certainly greater than if the staging had not occurred, but this type of staging does not necessarily change the meaning of the event in the mind of the viewer.

Linn's third category of staging raises the most significant moral problems. This category involves instances of staging for the purpose of telling a better story. In this category, photojournalists manipulate the action in front of the camera, causing the story "to develop in a certain way, when there is no reason to believe it would develop in that way otherwise." The example of NBC's truck-rigging story clearly fits in this category. In this case, the photographer helped create the story instead of simply capturing what naturally occurred before the camera. It is reasonable to assume that the audience may have interpreted the story differently than they would have if the staged video had not been included.

The story of the truck-staging incident and its aftermath should be treated as a cautionary tale. Journalistic standards and practices have come under increasing public scrutiny. One reason is the threat to the boundaries of journalism caused by changing and accessible technology, which is now available to increasing numbers of people. Their work routinely shows up in newscasts and on the Web. Citizens depend on the truthfulness of stories that they believe reflect the world they inhabit. Many news organizations are recommitting their organizations to traditional standards and practices in an effort to distinguish the work of their employees from the work of non-professionals. In doing so, it is likely that they will continue to edge out those who intend to deceive. Anyone who engages in deceptive practices, regardless of intent, can get caught up in the changing tides.

Although it is natural for disagreement about ethical boundaries in photojournalism to exist, and although it is expected that professional norms will evolve over time, photojournalists often work without a clear understanding of what their colleagues, employers or audiences expect of them. Will engaging in a form of staging that has typically been acceptable or routine in one context cause a photojournalist to be disciplined or fired in a different context? Right now that possibility exists. But there are several things that photojournalists can do to protect themselves while the field wrestles with these questions.

First, photojournalists should communicate with their employers about what constitutes acceptable staging, keeping in mind that the simple dictate "no staging" ignores the nuances of the problem. If rules do not exist at a particular news organization, perhaps the photojournalist can help develop them. Linn's categories may be useful in negotiating what is permissible and where the lines should be drawn. Asking a subject to repeat an action that he or she normally does when the camera is not present might be acceptable in some newsrooms because it does not alter the viewer's understanding or interpretation of an event. However, the practice may be problematic in other newsrooms. The effort to create and communicate clear guidelines can, in the end, save everyone a lot of grief.

Second, simply telling the viewer the circumstances under which the photograph was taken should solve any problem regarding potential deception. But, that can be risky, because getting that information to the readers or viewers depends on others in the production chain, including editors and font operators. Mistakes do happen and information is omitted. ABC News, for example, formally apologized to its audience after the word "simulation" was left off of staged video in a story about a U. S. diplomat suspected of espionage.

Therefore, we propose another form of protection, which is to "know thyself." When confronted with the prospect of staging of any type, photojournalists should be aware that the potential for deception exists and be willing to answer the following question: "What part of my actions in capturing this image would I be willing to disclose to the public?" All of it, part of it or none of it? An honest answer to that question might be all it takes to keep photojournalists clear of the slippery slope.

Authors' Note: You can read Travis Linn's article, "Staging in TV News," in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 47-54.

© Karen Slattery and Erik Ugland

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.

Erik Ugland is an assistant professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in media ethics, law and policy.