Altered yearbook photo bespeak need for better ethics training

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Earlier this month, a New Jersey high school was in the headlines because several students reported that “pro-Donald Trump” logos on the shirts they wore when sitting for their school pictures were mysteriously absent from the photos printed in the yearbook.

The act raised quite a stir, and the yearbook faculty adviser was disciplined. According to news reports, students were not involved in editing the photos. The school will also issue re-printed books with the original photos. This story has highlighted a series of deep legal and ethical questions.

First, if the decision to alter the photos was made by school faculty, this is an overreach of authority and can constitute censorship. Faculty advisers (in this case, state actors) cannot arbitrarily stifle speech simply because they disagree with it, especially when students are engaging in speech that is deserving of the highest First Amendment protection (in this case, showing support for a candidate in an election). It should be noted that little to no reasoning has emerged publicly as to why the editing took place.

If it were made by students (though it doesn’t appear to be), then their decision-making power could be insulated from censorship concerns surrounding an abridgment of the students’ First Amendment rights. Students, as non-state actors, have wider latitude over editorial content.

But looking at this issue more broadly, it doesn’t matter who edited the photos or who made the decision to do so. This story raises ethical concerns that far outweigh the legal issues. First, no matter who made the decision, the most important question here is “What was their journalistic purpose?” Why would they choose to airbrush material from a photo?

Altering photos (i.e. altering the truth) is always of paramount concern. Changing the photos’ content changes the reality of the situation. The bottom line is that changing even small details like these in a photo creates a work of non-fiction, a paramount sin in the journalism world. Viewers trust that what they are seeing is the truth as it happened, not an interpretation that fits the photographer’s worldview.

Altered photos warp the sense of trust viewers place in what they are seeing. Yearbooks are a form of journalism. As such, they must operate under the principles of ethical decision making akin to all forms of journalism. Editing photos simply because one disagrees with a political statement is no more appropriate than removing cords or light fixtures to enhance the photo’s aesthetic appeal.

Award-winning photo provides valuable ethics lesson

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The image below received the Photo of the Year award in the World Press Photo contest. The photo was captured by Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici, and it showed an off-duty police officer seconds after he shot and killed the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an art gallery in December 2016.

ap_16355526985677_custom-67075110a0eb047700a08affd6231f90f3ea4647-s800-c85 The jurors who selected the award were torn. On one hand, they wanted to reward the fine work and bravery of the photographer who risked his own life to capture a dramatic, newsworthy moment that the world needed to see. On the other, some on the jury didn’t want to reward this criminal act with publicity and notoriety.

This post from the New York Times Lens blog provides some additional insight.

Did the jury make the right call? What are the ethical issues in play here?