Many people’s first engagement with news ethics, I would venture, is motivated by an image: “How could they show something so (take your pick) obscene, violent, offensive, biased….” Further, reactions frequently conflict; allowing for exceptional cases,1 for every ten who are outraged by an image, at least five are impressed.
Photo journalists must often feel they just can’t win. Take, for example, Time magazine’s September 15, 2008, cover photo of the vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The close-up image was, to my mind, a flattering photo, accompanying an equally flattering inside story, “The Education of Sarah Palin.” Reaction from her supporters, however, was very different: they complained that the “obviously unbecoming” image revealed Time’s liberal bias. As evidence, one commentator grumbled, “You can see her chin hairs!”
In addition to sometimes ticking us off, images also draw us in, as every marketing director will attest. They attract, inform, and motivate, and often in ways the best wordsmiths can only envy. Like most instructors, when I teach this topic I rely heavily on photo slides and hard copies, letting the power of the image tell the story.
Think about historical events of the last hundred years; you recall them as images rather than words, right? Some examples: the 1937 crash of the Hindenburg; raising the flag on Iwo Jima; planes hitting the Twin Towers; Abu Ghraib.2 Once exposed to these images, they’re pretty well burned into our brains and continue to evoke powerful emotional and ethical responses.