Language of the Image: Ethics for Visual Media

Photographs and visual images tend to generate heated debates in media organizations. Is the photograph or the video image too graphic to publish? Will it bring a public outcry if it is used on the evening news, a website, mobile device or the front page of the newspaper?

The Poynter Institute has devised this checklist for ethical decision-making in photojournalism.

Questions to ask before you take a photo or record or videotape:

  • Am I invading someone’s privacy? If so, is it for an appropriate reason?
  • Is this a private moment of pain and suffering that needs to be seen by our readers/viewers?
  • Am I shooting at a distance that is not obtrusive or potentially revictimizing individuals?
  • Am I acting with compassion and sensitivity?

Questions to ask before publication/broadcast:

  • Do I need more information about facts or context?
  • What is the news value of the photograph?
  • What is the motivation for publishing the photograph or using video image?
  • What are the ethical and legal concerns?
  • Who will be offended? Does such offense outweigh the value of presenting the image?
  • What are the possible consequences of using the photograph?
  • How would I react if I were in the photograph?
  • Are there any alternative ways to present the information to minimize harm while still telling the story in a clear way?
  • Will we be able to justify our actions?

Taken from Language of the Image, a self-directed course at Poynter NewsU.

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    Vicki Krueger

    Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current position as marketing communications manager.


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