Research (Vol. 52): Guiding principles in an age of instantaneous publication

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College Students, Media Advisers Agree with Professionals Regarding Publication of Graphic Spot News Images

By Bradley Wilson, Ph.D.
Midwestern State University

Bradley Wilson, Managing Editor College Media Review

Introduction – Professional photojournalists have been discussing what types of photos they should take and publish since the dawn of the profession. College media advisers and college photojournalists join that discussion more frequently as technology evolves. When dealing with basic photojournalistic ethics, the research and the abundance of prior literature provide a foundation for a discussion about what types of spot news photographs media outlets should publish in an era when all individuals armed with a digital camera can call themselves photojournalists on the scene of a spot news event.

Background – During the last half of the 19th century, photography was becoming an integral part of society. Photographers carrying bulky cameras documented building, still objects and, for those people who could sit still for the long exposures, formal portraits. By the time of the Civil War, photographers such as Matthew Brady carried their cameras to the action to show battlefields, camps, towns and people touched by the war. When a selection of Antietam photos went on exhibit in Brady’s gallery in New York in 1862, The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards … he has done something very like it” (“Brady’s Photographs,” 1862). As historian Naomi Rosenblaum (1984) said of photography at the time, “The photograph was regarded as an exemplary record because it was thought to provide an objective — that is, unaltered — view of solid fact and achievement.”

In the decades that followed, photojournalism continued to evolve. The portable and easy-to-conceal Leica camera, invented in 1914 and marketed in 1925, changed the approach of visual reporters. No longer official observers beholden to those in power, photojournalists could be the eyes of the public — prying, amused, or watchdog eyes (Hoy, 2005). Despite the lack of obvious symbolism, Nick Ut’s image, “Napalm Girl,” became an icon of the war while it posed ethical challenges for the publishers of The New York Times, which chose to run the photo, including full frontal nudity of a minor, on the front page. Photojournalists continued to document the realities of spot news in armed conflicts such as the Vietnam War, as Eddie Adams did with his famous image of the execution of a Viet Cong suspect by a Vietnamese general in Saigon, and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Discussion of the ethical dilemmas photojournalists sometimes find themselves in also goes beyond the battlefield, sometimes hitting too close to home for viewers who do not necessarily want to see such graphic, spot news images at their breakfast table no matter how untarnished and real they may be. In early 1987, an era before cell phones and instantaneous Web access, an era when editors generally operated under a philosophy of “If it bleeds, it leads,” the state treasurer of Pennsylvania, R. Budd Dwyer, shot himself to death in front of a dozen reporters and camera crews during a news conference. Researchers studying the situation concluded, “Any ethical dilemmas faced by journalists during decision making were put aside for later consideration. The material was edited quickly and according to similar patterns, or conventions, …” (Parson, 1988). The day after the event, the story became the media coverage after headlines in newspapers nationwide read “Cameras Record Deadly Farewell” (“Cameras Record,” 1987), “Pennsylvania Treasurer Horrifies Reporters, Aides” (“Pennsylvania Treasurer,” 1987), “Disgraced Pa. Pol Blows Brains Out at News Conference” (“Disgraced Pa. Pol.,” 1987), “Suicide a Dilemma for Media” (“Suicide,” 1987).

In an Associated Press Managing Editors’ survey of 85 newspapers, 18 percent of morning papers ran a photo of Dwyer with the gun in his mouth, of the shooting or the aftermath. Others ran a photo of Dwyer holding the gun or no photo. Marty Petty of The Hartford Courant concluded, “Some common considerations many editors had in selecting which photos to include: the impact of the Dwyer photos on readers with suicidal tendencies…; as the distance from the event increased, the significance of the story decreased; and the public nature of the event heightened its newsworthiness” (Petty, 1987).

In the same report, David Boardman of the Seattle Times concluded, “Every day, every edition, we face challenging judgments. Not all are as tough as a suicide photo, but we know that each is important to some segment of our audience. We know that many of the calls we make in a few minutes on deadline can have a lifelong effect for someone, particularly a subject of a story. We consider it an awesome responsibility” (Boardman, 1987).

That responsibility continued for editors in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, when they continued to show restraint in displaying graphic images. In those attacks, about 3,000 people died in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Penn. Of those 3,000, the first official casualty of the Sept. 11 attacks was Mychal Judge, chaplain of the Fire Department of New York. Shannon Stapleton’s photo of firefighters carrying his body out of the rubble became one of the symbols of the attacks. However, it is hardly as graphic as other images taken that day. For photographer Richard Drew, an Associated Press photographer in New York City, his images — much more disturbing to viewers worldwide — allowed him to humanize the attacks. As he stood on West Street with EMS crews and police officers, he began noticing people coming out of the building, falling or jumping. One image in particular, an image that the New York Times published on page 7 in the Sept. 12 edition, of a man falling head first before the buildings fell, caused the biggest stir. “He was trapped in the fire,” Drew said, “and decided to jump and take his own life rather than being burned” (Howe, 2001). In response, readers explained this was not the kind of picture they wanted to see over their morning corn flakes, as David House reported in a Sept. 13, 2001 column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (House, 2001).

A study of the images used after the attacks revealed that the debate regarding publishing the images centered around three fundamental issues: reader response, victims’ privacy and the ability of the photographs to communicate the story of the day. “Although many editors found the images disturbing, the overwhelming reason for publishing them was that they added to the visual storytelling about what happened during and after the terrorist attacks. Many editors believed readers needed to be exposed to the disturbing images in order to fully comprehend the story of the day” (Kratzer, 2003).

In the decade since, as technology evolved, photojournalists continued to face similar dilemmas, particularly when it came to publishing first or being certainly accurate (CNN, 2008; Osterreicher, 2012). Further, they continued to face increasing demands on their time at work with editors demanding smaller staffs that do more (Associated Press, 2013).

Research questions

With these cases, and many more, as a foundation, two research questions evolved from the historical imperatives of what photojournalists should or should not publish in an era when anyone armed with an iPhone can be a photojournalist and produce images that can be published from the field with little or no intervention by editors.

(1) GENERAL ETHICS: What are the ethical standards both in terms of what can and should be published and how when covering spot news?

(2) ETHICAL CODES: Is there agreement on the wording within a code of ethics? Do the professional photojournalists and college photojournalists have a code of ethics regarding use and manipulation of graphic, spot news images?


This research used a 36-question survey partially built upon existing studies of professional photojournalists focusing on their ethical standards in spot news situations and digital manipulation of hard news images. The link to the SurveyMonkey survey was distributed on multiple email distribution lists and on social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. Both the Radio Television News Directors Association and the National Press Photographers Association promoted the survey.

Respondents were shown widely published images from the Boston Marathon to determine whether a standard for the publication of graphic, spot news images exists.

In total, 829 people, including 283 professionals, 51 college photojournalists and 57 college media advisers/instructors, responded. Of them, 63 percent were male, and more than 40 percent of all respondents had more than 20 years experience. Nearly 40 percent described themselves as primarily working for newspapers, and more than 25 percent described themselves as primarily working for online media. Magazine photojournalists represented nearly 20 percent of the sample.


As do all good, spot news leads, the lead on the Page 1 story by Mark Arsenault of The Boston Globe described the situation on April 15, 2013. “Two bomb blasts, 12 seconds apart, rocked the finish line of the 117th running of the Boston Marathon Monday, killing at least three people, including an 8-year-old Dorchester boy, wounding more than 130, and leaving sidewalks of Boylston Street covered in blood.” The tally of injured would later be upgraded to more than 250, and the coverage by The Boston Globe won that paper a Pulitzer Prize a year later. Discussion of the images published in papers and on websites around the world, similar to those published from previous terrorist attacks, school shootings, war zones or suicides, fostered discussion of whether publications should have published the images from the finish line, how they should have been published and what level of digital manipulation, from cropping to blurring of faces, was acceptable in this spot news situation.

In the image of Jeff Bauman, whose legs were blown off in the blast, the college students/instructors in the survey agreed with the professionals, 84 percent responding that it was acceptable to run the image unaltered. In comments reminiscent of those by viewers who viewed Brady’s Civil War images, a professional photographer responding said, “It’s as it happened. Reality is always best.” Another said, “Americans need to see everything when it comes to a major news event. Softening the blow only serves to dehumanize them to tragedy and reinforces the shallow news consumption that has been fostered here.”

Still, 16 percent of college students disagreed that publication of the unaltered image was acceptable, further promoting the discussion of ethical standards. One college student who disagreed with publication of the images said, “Although the image depicts the truth, it is too graphic and perhaps unnecessary in telling the story. The same story can be told without emphasizing the gore.” And one professional photographer said, “Viewers should not have to also suffer PTSD because a photographer was in the right place to capture some poor bastard being carted away without his extremities.”

Some media outlets, such as The Philadelphia Inquirer, chose to mitigate the graphic nature of the photo of Jeff Bauman, later the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo essay in feature photography by Josh Haner, by cropping it. Of the 522 newspapers archived from April 16, 2013 by the Newseum, 29 used this image on the front page, 13 using it as the dominant image. Every one of these papers published the cropped version of the image.

College students/advisers (89 percent) and professionals (86 percent) agreed that cropping was an acceptable treatment of the image. Comments such as “A crop like this is entirely within the bounds of editorial discretion and entirely understandable for a broad-circulation daily newspaper” — from a college media adviser/instructor — prevailed. Most acknowledged that while cropping the graphic portions of the image might shelter viewers from the graphic content, it was within the established norms for any news photo but not without discussion. “Sure it’s acceptable but cowardly,” said one respondent, also a college media adviser/instructor. Another college media adviser/instructor viewed cropping the image as a form of censorship. “Their decision was acceptable, but still a clear case of censoring the news.” Later in the survey, almost 5 percent of college students and advisers and almost 3 percent of professional photojournalists stated cropping (“removing content by trimming off the edges of the photograph”) was never acceptable to news photographs.

The Huffington Post and other media outlets published the second image, another graphic, spot news image by John Tlumacki of the Boston Globe of a woman lying in a pool of blood with injuries to her legs, a dazed woman sitting nearby. The professionals and college students/instructors responding to the survey agreed that publishing this image with no manipulation was acceptable — largely for the same reasons and in similar percentages, 91 percent of college students/advisers. “The image is a powerful reflection of a major event. No alteration is needed nor acceptable,” said one respondent. Another said, “It is what happened. A NEWS event. Really awful images happen in war/terrorist bombings/natural destructive events like tsunamis and tornados. Showing the truth should always be the guide to be followed.” Versions of the image were published in news media outlets such as Arizona Daily StarLos Angeles TimesThe Miami HeraldThe Kansas City Star and Hagerstown (Md.) Herald-Mail.

Regardless of how they stated an image should be published, few cited any links to a specific code of ethics to give them guidance. Only 41 percent of professionals stated they had a company ethics policy and many of those referenced the NPPA Code of Ethics as providing guiding principles. Of the college students and advisers, only 18 percent stated they had any similar policy and many of them also referenced the NPPA Code of Ethics.


In general, the results of the survey show that there is merit in continuing the discussion of photojournalistic standards and ethics, particularly in an age of instantaneous publication when street photographers armed with an iPhone may be faced with the same ethical dilemmas about whether to publish an image, dilemmas previously reserved for experienced editors in the security of a newsroom hours after an event. Continuing education, planning and discussion of when it is acceptable to take photos or to publish photos is warranted for anyone armed with a camera — everyone in the newsroom. And a written set of guidelines for photojournalists, possibly with individual case studies from that publication’s history, would also serve the 80 percent of student media operations that do not have such written guidelines.

In terms of general ethical standards regarding the publication of graphic, spot news images, the vast majority of college photojournalists and professionals agreed that it is acceptable to document reality without “softening the blow,” something that can be written into a student media outlet’s own code. And the college students and professionals agreed that the highest standards should be applied to spot news images such as those taken during events such as the shootings at Virginia Tech, Oikos University or Northern Illinois, or fires in residence halls, apartments or Greek houses. Still, everything from how to publish, when to publish and what level of cropping is acceptable for spot news images should be addressed and included in a thorough code of ethics even though professionals and college students/advisers tend to agree in principle.

As to whether any given single image should or should not be published, no single code of ethics or policy can dictate what is right, or wrong. “You can’t set ethical guidelines. Ethics, like morals and standards, are personal. Everybody has his or her own. Fine. Except for one small catch: Journalists serve the public. If we aren’t perceived as credible, we can’t be of much service. Ethics are more than a personal matter in photojournalism because what we do affects a large number of people” (Brink, 1988).

Just as firefighters spend time pre-planning how they will react to a building fire, photojournalists and their editors should plan how they will react at spot news events so that readers will obtain a complete and accurate portrayal of the event that is, based on their community standards, realistic yet tasteful. As the next generation of cameras and current tools such as Eye-Fi allow for nearly instantaneous publication of photographs from high-end digital cameras, the editor as a gatekeeper may no longer be a part of the process determining what is realistic and tasteful. Photojournalists, who continue to be passionate about their need to document the realities, and sometimes the horrors, of the human condition, need to be made aware of the community standards — standards that differ from publication to publication, city to city, campus to campus — through discussion of specific cases and the expectations placed upon them, and then held accountable to those standards. As Vincent LaForet said, “What really differentiates us from other photographers and media is our credibility. We have a history of getting it right, accurately…. Our credibility is all that we have” (Irby, 2003). When split seconds matter, as technology evolves and the decision making moves into the hands of street photographers, not sheltered editors, credibility and conscience have to remain at the fore of the process.

The guidelines may be as simple as reminding staff members of their obligations to report the truth and to maintain the credibility of their news publication. Quoting a 1994 article by David Johns in News Photographer, the magazine of the National Press Photographers Association, Brink (1988) said, “‘The photojournalist cannot escape responsibility for unethical shots. He is the first gatekeeper. The photographer makes the initial decision.’ And since our work is often done in a split second with no time to think, our ethical standards have to be considered before they are tested.”

Limitations and areas for future research

One of the limitations of this research began with the survey, a series of questions that focused on one spot news event, the 2013 Boston Marathon. It is always difficult to generalize findings based on discussion of a single event. Questions in the online survey regarding ethical statements of principle attempted to get at larger issues to provide college media advisers with a specific set of questions — tested in the context of a specific event — they could discuss with their staff members, who could compare their ideas with those of a larger pool of college photojournalists and professional photojournalists. Because the survey was online, it required access to the website and the specific URL which was distributed across various social media outlets and via email to people who were active in college media or interest in such projects, potentially introducing a selection bias.

As with any study using correlation, it is difficult to interpret causation. However, considering the differences between college photojournalists and media advisers and between college photojournalists and professional photojournalists, one area for potential future research is longitudinal. Where and how do college photojournalists learn their ethical principles? Findings may examine the validity of teaching ethics formally in the classroom or the formation of ethical principles before students reach college. Additional research might examine whether those students whose ethical principles do not match the accepted norms of the professional simply enter other careers. Or ethical principles may be evolving along with the technology. What might have been deemed unacceptable 30 years ago may now be acceptable practice under certain circumstances.

When testing those ethical principles, subsequent work might test the guiding principles at the heart of the NPPA Code of Ethics, statements such as, “Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.” And “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context.” Concepts like fairness and accuracy may prove to be better, more measurable, benchmarks than objectivity and truth when examining any modern code of ethics.

Finally, as mentioned in some of the discussions regarding these images, publication may depend on media type. For example, publication of a graphic spot news image may be appropriate attached to a Tweet and may be appropriate in a large, daily metropolitan news publication but may be entirely inappropriate for a community-based publication that covers the same area.

Table 1

Difference between professionals and College photographers REGARDING PUBLICATION OF SPOT NEWS IMAGES (n=107 college photographers/advisers, n=283 professional)

Question t p percentage difference (pros-college)
Online, ran the image with no alteration. Was this acceptable? 0.63 0.52 2.5

The Philadelphia Inquirer was one of the news publications that chose to crop the image as it was used on page 1 of the April 16 print edition. Was this acceptable?

0.74 0.46 -2.8

In addition, later added a disclaimer: “[Warning, very graphic]…(Note: An earlier version of this gallery featured this photo with the graphic warning but without the image blurred. We have since decided to blur the subject’s face out of his respect for privacy).” Should the website have added this disclaimer?

0.76 0.45 -4.0

Online, ran this image with no alteration. Was this acceptable?

0.45 0.65 1.5

Positive effect size values indicate that the professional photojournalists and editors indicated “Yes” more often than the college photographers.


The entire survey is still open and accessible at

WilsonAppendix1Online, ran the image with no alteration. Was this acceptable? (Photo by Charles Krupa, Associated Press)

  • College students | 84 percent said yes
  • College advisers | 84 percent said yes
  • Professionals | 87 percent said yes

WilsonAppendix2The Philadelphia Inquirer was one of the news publications that chose to crop the image as it was used on page 1 of the April 16 print edition. Was this acceptable?

  • College students | 86 percent said yes
  • College advisers | 89 percent said yes
  • Professionals | 86 percent said yes

WilsonAppendix3In addition, later added a disclaimer: “[Warning, very graphic]…(Note: An earlier version of this gallery featured this photo with the graphic warning but without the image blurred. We have since decided to blur the subject’s face out of his respect for privacy).” Should the website have added this disclaimer?

  • College students | 84 percent said yes
  • College advisers | 65 percent said yes
  • Professionals | 69 percent said yes

WilsonAppendix4Online, ran this image with no alteration. Was this acceptable? (Photo by John Tlumacki, The Boston Globe)

  • College students | 88 percent said yes
  • College advisers | 93 percent said yes
  • Professionals | 92 percent said yes


  • Arsenault, Mark. (April 16, 2013). “3 Killed, 130 Hurt by Bombs at Finish Line; Area Locked Down.” The Boston Globe, p. 1.
  • Associated Press. (2013). “Chicago Sun-Times Lays Off All Its Full-Time Photographers.” The New York Times. Retrieved from June 29, 2014.
  • Boardman, David. (1987). “Press-conference Suicide Presents Newspapers with Complex Judgments.” A Public Suicide: Papers Differ on Editing Graphic Images. Associated Press Managing Editors Report, 9.
  • “Brady’s Photographs: Pictures of the Dead at Antietam” (1862, Oct. 20). The New York Times.
  • Brink, Ben. (1988, July). “Question of Ethics: Where Does Honesty in Photojournalism Begin? ‘The Foundation is Basic, Simple Honesty,’ an Editor Says.” News Photographer, 21-34.
  • “Cameras Record Deadly Farewell.” (1987, Jan. 23) Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram, p. 1.
  • “CNN Statement on Tibet Coverage.” (2008, March 28) Retrieved from June 29, 2014.
  • “Disgraced Pa. Pol. Blows Brains Out at News Conference.” (1987, Jan. 23). New York Post, p. 3.
  • Goldstein, Blair. (2003, Dec. 10). “How I Got the Picture.” IndyWeek. Retrieved online at May 16, 2013.
  • House, David. (2001, Sept. 13). “Photo of Falling Man Upsets Many Readers.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
  • Howe, Peter. (2001) “Richard Drew.” The Digital Journalist. Retrieved online from, May 19, 2013.
  • Hoy, Anne H. (2005) National Geographic History of Photography.  Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 167.
  • Irby, Kenneth. (2003, April 2). “L.A. Times Photographer Fired Over Altered Image.” Retrieved from May 19, 2013.
  • Kratzer, Renee Martin and Brian Kratzer. (2003, winter). “How Newspapers Decided to Run Disturbing 9/11 Photos.” Newspaper Research Journal. 24(1).
  • National Press Photographers Association. “Code of Ethics.” Retrieved online from May 19, 2013.
  • Osterreicher, Mickey. “Photojournalist or Paparazzo? A Distinction with a Differece.” Retrieved online from June 29, 2014.
  • Parson, Patrick R. and William E. Smith. (1988). “R. Budd Dwyer: A Case Study in Newsroom Decision Media Morality.” Journalism of Mass Media Ethics. 3(1), 84-94.
  • “Pennsylvania Treasurer Horrifies Reporters, Aides.” (1987, Jan. 23). The Miami Herald, p. 1.
  • Petty, Marty. (1987) “Press-conference Suicide Presents Newspapers with Complex Judgments.” A Public Suicide: Papers Differ on Editing Graphic Images. Associated Press Managing Editors Report, 3-4.
  • Rosenblum, Naomi. (1984). A World History of Photography. New York: Abbeville Press, 155.
  • “Suicide a Dilemma for Media.” (1987, Jan. 23). Toronto Sun.

BradleyWilson3Bradley Wilson, Midwestern State University, is Co-Managing Editor for College Media Review.

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