Hurricane coverage raises questions about finding the truth amid disaster

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The images from Hurricane Harvey last week were horrific. Scores of people were left stranded in rising water, homes were destroyed and others’ livelihoods were washed away in seconds. As with any natural disaster of that magnitude, the storm became a focal point for local, national and even global news coverage.

And the coverage was everywhere. It included everything from real-time updates that provided life-saving information to harrowing stories of rescues and reunions among the displaced. And this whole cycle is about to be repeated again this weekend as Hurricane Irma takes aim at Florida.

A natural disaster is always a painful experience. Capturing that pain, while an important documentary function of the news media, can be tough for survivors and victims who become unwitting subjects of the news. Last week, the Columbia Journalism Review highlighted several ethical dilemmas in the coverage. Both this article and CJR’s weekly podcast, The Kicker, devoted time to delving into those questions.

Discussing these matters can help students grapple with the real consequences of how the media present facts and depict the subjects featured in the news. Ultimately, they can better learn how to make decisions about coverage in their own publications.

lootfindWords matter: How the news media describe something can have a profound impact on how the audience understands and interprets what they see. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, these two images circulated online noting how the black man in the first photo was described as “looting” while the white couple in the second photo were described as “finding” the items they were carrying. As this story in the New York Times indicates, each photographer did offer justification about why he each felt those respective word choices were justified.

Use of the word “looting” arose again during coverage of Harvey when ABC reporter Tom Llamas tweeted that he alerted police to possible looting.

What’s the distinction between the two terms? Is one more appropriate than the other? Is the term “looting” ever justified following a disaster? What if people were taking luxury items like jewelry or TV sets that aren’t necessary for survival?

What proportion of disaster coverage should be focused on such questions? Does a preponderance of coverage about alleged criminal behavior following a disaster suggest that such activities are more prevalent than they really are? What effect can that have on the audience and their perceptions of reality?

Involvement in the story: Llamas’s actions (alerting the police) involved him in the story. His actions had some impact on how the events unfolded. This was even more true when a television crew from a Houston TV station rescued a driver caught in raging water.

Generally, reporters seek to remain out of the story by serving as bystanders and observers. Is there ever a point when that rule becomes ethically unacceptable? Some will make the distinction of whether it’s necessary to choose between being a human being and a journalist. Is that a false choice? Is it enough to argue that the circumstances of a natural disaster mandate a different set of guidelines to abide by?

Telling the truth vs. minimize harm: This video of a CNN reporter interviewing a clearly distraught woman fleeing the floodwaters drew criticism. As noted in the CJR podcast, a healthy tension exists between capturing emotions, experiences and reactions of those affected but also not appearing to exploit their pain, grief and exile for professional fame, monetary gain for the news organization or a spike in ratings. People in such situations are vulnerable and need to be treated with care and respect.

What should the reporter have done? Stopped the interview all together? Gained consent before going live on air? Taken time to establish a relationship? It’s ethically necessary to cover the story, but how you go about it can have a significant impact on those who are subjects of the news, especially the vulnerable.

Disaster reporting is wrought with numerous other dilemmas affecting both the subjects of the stories and the reporters themselves. I outlined some of those in a previous post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Altered yearbook photo sparks questions about truth in reporting

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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?