Use of graphic photos must be accompanied by ethical discussion

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Before a news organization decides to post or publish graphic images, an ethical discussion must be had by management and staff.

Before a news organization decides to post or publish graphic images, an ethical discussion must be had by management and staff.

For a news organization, the challenge in covering a natural disaster, a horrific attack like the Boston Marathon bombing or a crime scene is the potential for graphic images.

Care must be taken when airing, publishing and especially, sharing such images on social media. I have faced this issue when covering breaking news myself.

At a past job, while off-duty and running errands, I happened upon the scene of a terrible crash before anyone at my news organization got there. A woman who (thankfully) appeared to be conscious was being taken out of a vehicle by emergency personnel. Out of respect for her, her family who may see the photo and people who may be upset by the photo, I took cellphone pictures showing different angles of the crash where she could not be seen.

I felt ethically, this was the right thing to do, because what if the worst had happened and she passed away? I know if that was my family member, I would not want that photo to be how I remembered them. After seeing the wreckage and taking the photos, I was pretty shaken myself, so I knew I made the right decision.

A lot of these decisions have to be made “in the moment,” and a journalist must use their best news judgement, as I didn’t have my news managers there with me approving each photo. When I got to work later that day, most of my co-workers told me I made the right call.

Even though the person at the scene taking the pictures has to make an on-the-spot decision, it is still a team effort in making the decision to use potentially graphic photos. For example, if I had taken photos where the woman was visible, it would be up to producers and managers back in house to decide if the photo could be used on air or online. Just because a news photographer takes several photos, it doesn’t make them all fit to print, publish or air.

Sometimes, like in cases of the Boston bombing or even with the 2010 Haiti earthquake, some news organizations do make the decision to use graphic photos because they believe that it tells another part of the story, like Miami Herald photo editor David Walters told the American Journalism Review in 2010:

“Some people, both readers and journalists, find some of the images from Haiti to be gut-wrenching and undignified. These graphic, hard-hitting photos always spawn debate in our newsroom..careful debate. But the fact remains that the devastation in Haiti is gut-wrenching and in many instances, tragic circumstances have stripped away the dignity of victims who were so mercilessly affected by this disaster. That part of the story must be acknowledged in both words and pictures or the story is incomplete.”

There are always going to be readers, viewers and journalists who may not agree on the final decision of “to use or not to use” graphic photos, but there’s one thing that Walters brings up that is clear: An ethical discussion must be had by staff before deciding to socially share, air or publish such photos.

How social media’s changing journalism and public relations

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Take a look at how companies are using social media with this graphic created by Dr4ward. Click to view a larger version of the image.

Social media is changing the game for many industries, including journalism, public relations, marketing and advertising.

I have seen this firsthand as a journalist. Information is quickly able to be shared with the masses, as individuals on the scene of breaking news can become citizen journalists. However, as Geneva Overholser says, especially with the advent of this new media, it is still important for journalists to keep an eye on public interests.

Here are some things journalists must watch for when utilizing social media:

It is still important to be right. As a story breaks, being right is still more important than being first. Jayson DeMers cited the search for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect as an example. A manhunt for the wrong man began due to word spreading on Reddit, and that wrong man ended up committing suicide.

Content is at your disposal, but you still need to ask. Yahoo! Small Business Advisor says that finding pictures and content “is just a keyword search away” on Twitter and HootSuite. However, journalism and legal standards do not go out the window. Journalists still need to ask permission to use photos/video.

Be yourself, but remember you’re still a journalist. In its social media guide, Reuters tells its journalists they are still people entitled to their opinions about a favorite recipe or movie. Yet journalists still need to be mindful of the impact that their social posts can have on their organization and their future coverage. Jacquelyn Smith of Forbes also writes about being sure to present yourself in a professional manner on social during a job search, but this tip also serves well for those who are currently employed. Bottom line: Think before you post.

Advertising, public relations, marketing — and social media!
Social media will need to be in lockstep with these three departments going forward. Lisa Barone writes for Search Engine Watch that public relations and social media departments should share editorial calendars so everyone is on the same page.

Here are some tips these field professionals can use going forward:

Have your brand evangelists keep separate social accounts. Meghan M. Biro writes for Forbes that this will keep that person’s personal brand apart from your company’s brand. This way, if that person leaves, their account is still in tact and your company’s account can move forward without losing momentum.

Decide what role you want social media to play. Social has definitely got to be part of the strategy. However, Scott Elser writes for Inc. that a company has to decide if it wants to use social media for advertising or public relations.

Get even better at focusing your pitches. As a journalist, I can tell you that I’ve heard my share of lame story pitches. Instead of calling everyone in the Rolodex or blasting out a blanket email, PR professionals can get even more focused in their pitches thanks to social media. Kate McKinney and Kiran Ross write for The Business Journals that tools like MuckRack and Cision can help PR folks find the journalists who’d be most likely to cover their story.

How have you seen social media change the game for other industries?

What social challenges/opportunities do you see going forward?