The Ethical Responsibilities of the Visual Journalist

To speak bluntly about it, any portrayal of the rural poor as being miserable and pathetic is a misrepresentation and an unethical affront to the dignity of what is essentially the largest, and among the most voiceless, portion of the human population.

Ethics, according to Day, is the “branch of philosophy that deals with the moral component of human life.” In practice, he describes it, in a rather Kantian way, as being “a rational process applying established principles when two moral obligations collide.” It is a balancing act between our moral responsibility to others, and its practice should, ideally, lead us to decisions that helps us fulfil our basic moral obligations to others without inflicting harm on them or their personage.

The field of visual journalism in particular must be mindful of ethics. “In the end,” say Kovach and Rosenstiel in their analysis of the ethical failings of the newsroom, “Journalism is an act of character… A heavy burden rests on the ethics and judgment of the individual news gatherer, and the organization that publishes the work.” The work of the visual journalist, most especially those who specialize in deep dives and feature pieces, represents an intrusion into the lives of others as we put them under the lens of our cameras and articles.

Our ethical responsibility, as visual journalists operating in a world rife with social issues, is to balance the need of the public to stay well-informed against our moral obligation to keep our subjects safe from harm, while managing the economic demands of our newsrooms. This is where good character comes in, the practice of which can only come about in an environment that is open and democratic. Kobach and Rosenstiel remind us that “There has to be a culture in newsrooms that allows a journalist to have a free and open discussion.” As it goes with free speech, the best way for us to match what we owe to others while meeting the demands of our newsrooms is for us to work in an environment that allows us to speak freely instead of dictating upon us.

A recurring ethical conundrum I often find myself in is with regards to the portrayal of rural poor and indigenous communities, vis-à-vis how my organization wants them to be portrayed. I work for WWF, a conservation organization, and a recent realization they came to was that the general public tends not to respond to stories and photographs of pandas and elephants as well as they do to emaciated children. The push from international has been for us to focus on stories of human struggle, to give a face for the public to latch on to.

I understand the idea that our international network is going for. Bad news sells, after all. My personal ethics, however, can’t abide by it. It’s distasteful to portray the rural poor as being poor and miserable, because that’s not their reality. For me to focus solely on their misery would be to sandpaper over their lives as per the dictations of an international community whose only understanding of the poor is that they are miserable.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says that we ought to “seek truth and report it” — that we should “boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience,” and “seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.” The understanding of many in the international community of the rural poor as miserable and pitiful constitutes a sort of ignorance. As a visual journalist, it is my responsibility to portray the whole truths of these communities — and so I focus on their happiness as much as I do their struggle. Everyone deserves human dignity. My team shares the same sentiments as me, and we publish my stories to good reception, like little case studies to WWF International that good news sells, too.