Ethics in Photojournalism: Past, Present, and Future – Daniel Bersak

If I am to comment on the practice of photojournalism it was apparent that I needed to have an understanding and background in the area of photojournalism and ethics. In response I decided to study and make notes on this journal written by Daniel Berask; although he identifies that his examples and case studies relate specifically to American photojournalism it is still relevant because I aim to comment on photojournalism as a global practice. However like Bersak I might be commenting more on Western sources because I am more familiar with them. My notes and evaluation of this journal can be see below:

  • The National Press Photographer’s Association has their own specifications of ethics in relation to photojournalism
  • Photography is only around 150 years old and is constantly still evolving
  • Is the definition of photojournalism a combination of photography and journalism?
  • Interestingly enough the definition of journalism is very open and applies to both professionals and citizens
  • Usually ethics in photography centres around “photographic truth”
  • According to the NPPA the goal of the photojournalist is the “faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand”
  • The distinction between between ethics and taste is always being debated
  • There is also a line between ethics and professionalism
  • Paul Martin’s 6 ethical philosophies, these can be seen below
  • Categorical Imperative – what is acceptable for one person should be acceptable for everyone
  • Utilitarianism – weigh up the positive and negatives and decide what is best for the greatest number of people
  • Hedonism – “do what feels good” attitude, publishing provocative imagery is an example of this
  • The Golden Mum – compromising and finding the middle ground to tell the story
  • Veil of Ignorance – put yourself in the subject’s position and empathise
  • The Golden Rule – treat a subject as you would treat yourself
  • Ethics can also be split into two categories: institutional and photographer-centric, an institution might choose not to publish a graphic photo but the photographer thought it was okay to take
  • Photography was established and it took decades for it to be combined with text – the New York Times photos until 1896, previously it was drawings and etchings
  • Readers demand more integrity and ethics in news images today
  • Some cases were disputed – Joe Rosenthal’s image was questioned as to whether or not it was true
  • Technology posed new opportunities for photographers, and access became easier too
  • Out of Vietnam came the image “Napalm Girl” editors chose to sacrifice the girl’s privacy and offend readers slightly to provoke a response
  • Larry Burrows would put his camera down and help the subject
  • 1990’s saw the beginning og purely news photographer however the switch didn’t start completely until 1992
  • Accompanying digital technology was digital manipulation – 1982 National Geographic Cover was manipulated
  • Early alterations foreshadowed breaches to come
  • Photojournalism has expanded rapidly with many new forms and subgenres
  • There are no rules or ethics in photojournalism and no punishments for ethical violations
  • Each publication has it’s own ethics and standards but there will always be breaches of cases
  • The NPPA’s codes are the closest thing to s unified standard
  • Walski’s doctored image of the soldier (combining two images) wasn’t claimed to be manipulation until is was addressed and he was confronted
  • People have argued that a photograph is a quotation therefore it shouldn’t be altered just like a quotation taken from a journalist
  • Manipulation can also be done in the darkroom so it isn’t an entirely new topic
  • Meyer suggested since writers are allowed to rephrase their topic, news photographers should have the same privilege
  • The evening graphic used to do it all the time but called the photographs ‘composographs’
  • NPPA says “Do not manipulate images… in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects”
  • Susan Sontag wrote an article for the New York Times in 2004 and said “The pictures will not go away. That is the nature of the digital world in which we live” (in reference to the images from Abu Gharib)
  • The Press is sometimes nicknamed “The Fourth Estate”
  • Technology has played a part in the evolution of today’s ethical system – perhaps the predominate influence
  • Cameras in portable devices such as cellphones/smartphones
  • Shift away from printed material and towards digital media and electronic media for image consumption
  • It is almost  impossible for news photographers to use film
  • In the age of print, it was more difficult to pull off a convincing photo fake
  • News cameras and software are changing photojournalism
  • Consumer and “prosumer” technology is improving – networked devices are capable of transmitting images in real time
  • Yuki Noguchi – “History if full of accidental journalism using portable devices”
  • There are people who try and trick mainstream media with fake images – the consequences of which can be dramatic and increases when editors have little time to vet the images from the public


This journal has posed many ideas about the ethics in photojournalism and it has pointed out the responsibility over the content of the image is held by all involved in the production and distribution of the image; including citizen content. Perhaps most influential is the role of the photo-editor who decides which content is appropriate for the news and indeed if it represents photographic realism. The complexities with ethics have been increased and amplified with the shift from analogue to digital as the capacity for manipulation has increased and the citizen now has the ability to become a publisher of material despite not being trained in constructing a photographic narrative. The fact that the National Geographic cover has been used again in this journal is confirmation that I will use it in my research paper in relation to photographic truth and ethics in photojournalism. Paul Martin’s 6 ethical philosophies are really interesting and I will definitely be comparing them to the content I am investigating in relation to photographic realism and ethics. The concept of hedonism can be loosely applied to the manipulation of images for the sake of a better aesthetic because the photographer or photo-editor is making a decision based on the whether or not the photographic looks ‘good’. Overall this journal has been really beneficial in learning more about the potential ethics surrounding photojournalism; I have discovered that the closest thing to a fixed set of rules is laid out by the National Press Photographer’s Association however not all photographers (professional or citizen) will conform to these. I have come to the view that it must be up to each individual to take the responsibility and produce/distribute ethical photographs; this is the urgency I will convey in my research paper.


Reference: Bersak, D. (2006) Ethics in Photojournalism: past, present, and future. [online] available from <; [27 January 2015


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