Ethics and Images: Five
Paul Martin Lester
After I told a new acquaintance that I taught at a university, she naturally asked which subject. “Visual communication,” I answered quickly, “and mass media ethics.” I then braced slightly for the inevitable bad joke that always followed. “Visual ethics,” she replied, “sort of an oxymoron, isn’t it?” Fortunately, I was ready with my usual and equally weak comeback, “Well, I always have work.”
Because of the unique emotive power that pictures have over words, it seems the link between visual messages and ethical behavior is more problematic in the lay public’s mind than stories and ethical dilemmas (although conflicts of interest between the political positions of media organizations and individuals and their editorial products sometimes get noticed). Consequently, still and moving images reproduced within any media are often singled out for criticism. Usually, the disapproval is justified. Most media critics name five mass communications issues associated with ethics and visual journalism: victims of violence, rights of privacy, manipulations, stereotyping, and visual-persuasion techniques used for commercial purposes.
Violent pictures sensationalize and distract readers and viewers from the story itself. The public is made to feel sorry for pampered and deteriorating celebrities when they are hounded by packs of photographers. Stage-managed sources and digitally altered pictures stretch credibility to the point where “seeing is disbelieving.” Negative stereotypes of individuals from various multicultural groups are now the norm and no longer the exception. And finally, visual messages blur the distinction among advertising, public relations, and journalism until the public cannot tell the difference among the three professions.