Lately, I’ve noticed the predominance two kinds of images with stories about Ebola — the virus itself and people in hazmat suits. I’ve used both for stories myself and wondered about the tone and message they’re sending. Unlike what we’ve seen from West Africa, in the U.S. there aren’t a lot of images of the two people with confirmed cases of Ebola. There are, mostly, press conferences, people in hazmat suits and the virus itself. It feels almost sci-fi.
Here are three front pages from Friday that show the Ebola virus super up close, via Newseum:
On Tuesday, I tweeted this front, from the Times-Journal in Fort Payne, Alabama:
— Kristen Hare (@kristenhare) October 14, 2014
Earlier this month, I wrote about front pages from around the world that showed masked cleanup crews and health care workers.
The New York Daily News offered both the virus and the hazmat. Also Sofia Vergara sans pants.
So, with the practical need for images online and in print, what images should news organizations show while reporting on Ebola?
Kelly McBride, Poynter’s vice president of academic programs and media ethicist, says to also look at the whole package you’re presenting and the message it sends.
“A blowup image of a big scary virus, people in hazmat suits, alarming words in the headline, all that can overwhelm a completely reasonable story,” she said in an email. “Pushing out mobile alerts that scream: ‘More contagion, another person falls ill,’ make people think that they have to act now. Editors have a duty to envision how a reasonable consumer will respond. What information does that consumer really need first and foremost?”
“When it comes to images, I believe journalists (writers, photographers, page designers and editors) need to be responsible – as I hope they would in any situation,” said Andrew Seaman, a medical journalist with Reuters and the ethics chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, in an email. “The images must tell the story accurately. For example, the image should probably not be that of a person suffering with Ebola in a small Liberian medical center if the story is specifically about what is happening in Texas. Instead, it would be more appropriate to show images of the patients walking onto the planes carrying them to Maryland. Or, it could be of the well-wishers outside the hospital as the patients drive by in ambulances. The experience of people with Ebola in Liberia is – for the most part – much different than the experience of patients in the U.S.”
I sent Seaman two of the front pages from Friday, the San Diego Union-Tribune and The New York Daily News, and he doesn’t think either crossed an ethical line, “because images from a microscope can be shown in different ways,” he said. “Headlines, of course, are another matter.”
Most people get that Ebola is a serious medical condition, he said.
“Journalists shouldn’t pander to that fear or anxiety by including the most shocking or ominous images they find. The SPJ Code of Ethics applies to photography as it would to any other form of journalism. The images should reflect the truth – as should the other pieces of journalism it accompanies.”