On Tuesday, the New York Post ran a front page photo of a man about to die as a subway train approached a station where the man had been pushed into the path of the train. The ethical questions that have arisen over the conduct of the photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, (and the conduct of the New York Post in printing the photo) have caused a storm within and without the journalism world. The NPPA Ethics Committee has attempted to bring some perspective to the discussion. The discussion collected here is from emails by John Long, Ethics Chair NPPA, Steve Raymer, Peter Southwick, Committee members, and NPPA President Sean Elliot.
New York Subway Photo
By John Long
First, I cannot look into the heart of another man and judge him. If the photographer thought in the panic of the moment that flashing his strobe would alert the train driver, so be it. I do not know how far he was from the victim or how fast the train was going or if he could have pulled the man up or any details about the event. I cannot and will not pass judgment on another man’s motives.
That being said, was anyone there who could have pulled the victim up? The photographer is getting all the attention because he put himself into the story by making photographs and thereby calling attention to his presence at the scene.
I have very strong opinions on putting the camera down and helping but there are many well-meaning photojournalists who totally disagree with me. Some say the photographer has no right to participate in the story he or she is covering, that the photographer must remain objective, merely observe and not become a participant.
I do not believe it is possible to be totally objective. Your very presence at the scene changes the event you are covering to some degree.
For 25 years I have said the same thing: It is a matter of values.
Principles emanate from your values and this is the principle that works for me: “If you have placed yourself in a position where you can help, I feel you are morally obligated to help.” I am a human being first and a photojournalist second. In my world-view, my family comes first, my church second and my photojournalism third. I have to sleep at night.
I look back at the photographs that have had some repercussions over the years. Nick Ut’s photo of the Vietnam girl running naked after being napalmed and the photo by Kevin Carter of the child in Somalia being stalked by a vulture. In the first case, Nick made the photo and then took the child to the hospital. In the second, Kevin walked away and shortly after receiving his Pulitzer Prize, committed suicide.
The question for all photographers is this: what is the value of human life? What is my role, here and now, in this time and in this place? What are my priorities? Is the greatest good served by making the photo or by helping the victim? I know what I believe, but every photojournalist must look into his or her own soul and decide.
Secondly, should the newspaper have run the photo? Another principle I espouse is this: if the public needs this information in order to make informed choices for society, then we must run the photo. This is why we ran the Black Hawk Down photo. This is why we ran the photos of bodies floating in the streets after Katrina; this is why we ran the photo of Ambassador Stevens a few weeks ago from the attack in Libya. Does this subway photo serve anything more than prurient interests? Personally I do not see any social value but every newspaper has to find its proper voice with its readers and the Post has traditionally had a higher tolerance on taste issues than most papers. It is not my choice for a front page but The Post does sell a very large number of copies every day.
Bottom line: I hope I am never faced with this kind of choice but I also hope if I am, I put the camera down and try to do something for the person involved. It is the human thing to do and in the end, your human values in turn give value to your photojournalism.
By Steve Raymer:
Our professional and personal values are often in conflict, which is why training in ethical decision-making and a commitment in news rooms to ethical decision-making, including discussions, is critical.
Please take a look at the new gallup poll of December 2012 that asked our fellow Americans about the honesty, ethical behavior, and integrity of various professions and see where journalists stand:
Only 24 percent of the public sees us as ethical, sandwiching journalists between bankers and business people. Not exactly the company we want to keep, I should think.
Hence the additional evidence, if we needed more, that the reading and viewing public views what we do with great suspicion. And when you see the front page of today’s New York Post the public has every right to hold this view.
The research from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, housed at The Columbia University School of Journalism, suggests that while “there isn’t a large amount of research on how traumatic images affect news consumers in particular…mental health experts who specialize in trauma know that news reports about a traumatic event can have an impact on the psychological life of an individual not only immediately after the event but for years down the road.”
Publishing that tasteless and inflammatory image on the front page of The New York Post carries the power to caused additional pain and trauma, including aggravating symptoms of post traumatic stress syndrome in individuals who have experienced trauma in the past. Moreover, research shows that the more we show cities as crime prone — 11 p.m. TV newscasts have been especially well studied — the more audiences see the community as prone to criminality and the more fearful TV viewers can become. I see this image as one of those cases. Imagine tens of thousands of New Yorkers going to work tomorrow and the tension on the subway platform.
My bottom-line : Put down the damned camera and do what we would elect of another human being, that is to render aid, however feeble and imperfect! As I tell students, inn the end, doing ethics is about being able to look at yourself in the morning when you are shaving or putting on your makeup. Something tells me this photographer will have a very hard time passing that test tomorrow, next week, next year, and maybe forever.
By Sean Elliot:
I could see condemning the publication, except what is the standard? Is this once again dead in the U.S. are too sensitive a topic while dead in Syria or wherever overseas are not?
papers run photos of people about to die in car wrecks, and fires … as John said, this is the NY Post, this is what they do … whether it’s titillating or horrifying … it’s what their readers expect. As long as those 500,000+ continue to buy the paper they’ll continue to publish along those lines.
I think the Post editors took their traditions too far, for sure. They jumped on a chance to run a sensational image because it was … sensational. And it has been. The Post could not buy the kind of PR they’re getting. And no matter how much we elitist snobs in the media elite complain, they’re not going to change. It’s a black-eye to all of use who work places and have standards that would never use that image. It’s not a public service, it’s not raising a greater awareness, it’s not elevating the discussion … it’s horrifying the audience that wants, because they are so over-stimulated by the entire media culture, to be horrified so as to feel something.
My gut reaction was to say why does this deserve to be published … but it calls to question practically every image that wins in the spot news category of any contest … look at the spot news winners in BOP, POY, World Press, the monthly clips especially …
if it bleeds it leads? Maybe it’s time for wider soul-searching well beyond the New York Post?
By Peter Southwick:
Here’s my own take.
I would also be hesitant to pass judgment on the photographer’s actions, having not been there myself. If his story is to be believed, then in my opinion he acted appropriately in attempting to alert the train’s driver. It’s quite likely it was already too late given the proximity of the train, but that’s not something that can be judged in a split second. The photographer’s actions following the incident could cause some skepticism: selling the photo to the Post, and refusing to talk to anyone in the media without being paid. But again, his motives after the incident are not what has been called into question.
I always go back to my three levels of decision-making when considering an incident like this one. First, the legal. Did the photographer break any laws? Clearly not. Second, ethical. Did he violate the standards of the profession? If we take his story at face value, the answer again is no. And third, what I call the moral. This is the “can he look at himself in the mirror” question. Only he can answer that one, and he is not talking about it. I have always agreed with John Long’s statement that if we have put ourselves in a position to help, we are obligated to help.
To comment on the actions of the New York Post seems like a fool’s errand. Never known for their high standards of journalistic integrity, perhaps this represents another low. Steve is right that publishing this kind of photo in a such a sensational way continues to undercut our standing in the eyes of the public, but this has never been the concern of publications like the Post. Page One of their paper was on the front of every web site in the country today, with commentary flooding in from all over. An unqualified success, I am sure, in the eyes of the Post. As John Long always says, we have to consider the context.
So this was a tragic incident to be sure, and it is important for us to discuss these kinds of events to see if there are broader lessons to be learned. In my opinion, it’s up to each of us to ask what we would have done in similar circumstances and to make sure we can live with our answer.