How the web can help journalists deal with sensitive images (a little lesson in ethics)
Sometimes technology complicates our ethical decision-making, and sometimes it simplifies it.
Recently, journalists from The (Lakeland) Ledger in Florida wondered whether to run a photo that some thought might be too gory. It depicted the arm of a battalion chief who suffered a bite wound. I’ve seen the photo, and it isn’t pretty, although I wasn’t personally grossed out by it.
A group of GateHouse Media editors, including Lakeland Editor Lenore Devore, recently gathered in Columbus, Ohio, and we were discussing ethics. One of the keys to the updated version of our ethics handbook is that when ethical issues arise, we encourage people to talk about them.
Jill Geisler, a leadership and ethics expert who holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago, wrote the forward to the handbook after working with GateHouse Media last year. She suggests something she calls the “ethics walk.” Basically, you grab a couple of people (aim for diversity here) and talk through a sticky ethical situation.
And the folks in Lakeland did just that. A healthy conversation in the newsroom ensued, Devore said. Some favored showing readers the photo; some opposed it.
In the end, they decided to use Juxtapose, one of the Knight Lab interactive tools, to allow online readers to decide for themselves if they wanted to view the photo. Juxtapose gives readers the chance to slide back and forth between photos. Many journalists use the tool for before-and-after photos of storm damage or downtown redevelopment.
Lakeland created a blurred version of the photo and positioned it with the clear version. The default online featured just the blurred version, but you could slide to the left to see the real deal.
Another option to put the choice in readers’ hands is to create a link to the photo and publish a warning that the photo contains graphic content. People who want to see the photo can click on the link to do so.
An editor’s note accompanied the Ledger’s print story that told people the newsroom had decided not to run the photo because some people might find it gory or offensive. The note also directed them to the Juxtapose embedded on their website.
Back in the days before digital, we didn’t have a way of showing sensitive photos just to the people who wanted to see them. Even today, newsrooms still might choose to show a photo if the content rises to a level of importance. But the ability to leave the choice to the readers offers a fresh option in our ethical conversations.