Suspended Photographer Focuses on Ethics

The golden, warm floodlights burned down on the once revered, recently maligned, six-time state photojournalist of the year as he watched the crowd quickly reach standing-room-only status in the ballroom of the Omni Charlotte hotel.


Since his three-day suspension in mid-August for altering content during the visual editing process, many journalists have speculated about what Patrick Schneider’s raw files revealed. At NPPA’s 14th Annual Women in Photojournalism Conference, held in Charlotte, N.C., last month, he let them see for themselves.


Schneider, of The Charlotte Observer, presented the original images that won him three NCPPA awards (since rescinded) to the 130 or so people who gathered for a workshop on ethics.






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This was the first time that he specifically addressed the issue of his own alleged ethical violations and shared the raw files for public review. 


“I know that I probably went too far on some of my burns, and my paper has made our standards clear,” explained Schneider in my interview with him during the WIP session. “I will no longer tone my background down that far.”

Jennie Buckner, editor of the Observer, agrees. “I do not believe that Pat intended to deceive,” she said. “And this was all so new that we had to establish standards and defend our paper’s credibility.”
 
Throughout his career, Schneider has devoted skill, energy, and a passion for photojournalism to “trying to take what is there and bring immediacy to it.” This endeavor has earned him many honors and the invitation to present at this year’s WIP conference. 

The topic for our session changed after Schneider’s suspension, and he endorsed the idea of an ethics workshop, in an effort to “advance the critical conversation in our industry and to contribute to the establishment of clearer standards in our industry for contests and newsrooms.”

Throughout his career, he has worked within the bounds of the historical approach in a changing world. He conceded, “I went too far with the firefighter photograph for contest purposes and was thinking about how to stop the judges. I am willing to accept that, as one audience member put it, ‘Good people sometime make bad decisions.’”

During the presentation, Schneider shared his Photoshop technique, using the dodge and burn tool and the cropping tools, exclusively. There were not sophisticated techniques, just very basic adjustments that led to the removal of secondary background information that may have helped — or been central to – the viewers’ understanding of content and context. And that is where I draw the line. 

As an industry, now is the time to accept the power of accuracy. There is little amnesty for those who break the sacred trust of credibility.  

I trust that NPPA and NCPPA and all other contests and media outlets will accept the challenge to clarify or establish guidelines with the intent of preserving fairness, honesty, and accuracy. 
 
Poynter is creating a resource center of visual ethics policies for journalists to share (see sidebar).  You can use them as examples while creating your own guidelines, or as reference material. You might also do the following:



  • Assemble a diverse mix of members of the organizations on a task force with the goal of making recommendations to leadership.

  • Challenge people to articulate their personal ethical positions.

  • Consider the existing organizational rules or guidelines.

  • Accept that times have changed and that historically there were practices in wet darkrooms that were questionable and nebulous.

  • Agree that digital imaging and Photoshop are not evil tools. People make the decisions.

  • Focus on the need to prevent lying, deceiving, or misleading the public in your reporting.

  • Decide if guidelines for publishing should be different than guidelines for contest entries.

  • Define your journalistic mission and purpose.

  • Create a document that would be of value in building organizational culture and communicating standards.

  • Consider the grammar of photography and how similar it is to — and different from — other storytelling forms.  (Lighting, perspective, angles, lens choice, contrast, filters, etc.)

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Do some reporting on what others have done and why.

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