The Ethics of Photojournalism

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Larry C. Price discusses the line between enhancing an image to reflect reality and manipulating it to provide something false.


Larry C. Price

Ralph Bernhardt, Reporter

While photo-manipulation has existed for as long as there has been photography, the digitalization of media and the rise of Adobe Photoshop and other image-altering tools allow anyone to create false images.

The computer programs and applications let users create striking images and artistic composites that can astound viewers; however, they also make it easier than ever to spread misinformation or over-dramatize a real event.

Larry C. Price, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his photography with The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, deals with this dilemma daily. Hhas to uphold ethical standards in his work, especially given the sombre nature of his renowned portfolio.

As an Ohio-based photojournalist, Price has traveled across the world to take harrowing photographs of violence and poverty. He’s documented executions in Liberia, war-torn Angola, life in El Salvador and toured the then-Soviet Union for his A Day in the Life series of photography books. His images feature striking and disturbing scenes, which feel almost surreal with the black and white photography designed for newspaper.

Price spoke recently with Bixby High School about taking ethical and responsible photographs.


Staying Ethical with Digital Photography

Price says ethical standards can cross between genres.

“Ethics are personal things. I don’t really make a distinctions between being a writer, photographer, or multimedia creator,” he says. “To me, it’s all just journalism … and in that realm of journalism, ethics are somewhat universal. In documentary photography, you have to present the scene as you found it.”

The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News by Gene Foreman details ethical standards in the United States.

“The ethics code of the National Press Association, as well as the photo policies of many news-gathering organizations, explicitly prohibits tampering with what is known as documentary photography,” Foreman writes.

Price says the bottom line is to always present the best depiction of what really has happened.

“Journalism or media in general is supposed to describe reality,” he says. “The second you digitally alter a photo, it’s not reality. There’s all sorts of gray areas, though. At the end of the day, you can’t, without technology, capture reality as seen through your eyes.

“You have to use an instrument of some sort. In my case, it’s a photographic tool. That’s where the ethics come in. You have to the the gatekeeper of the information. It has to be a reasonable and as accurate as possible representation of the scene.

“You don’t take things out. You can’t move the telephone pole just because it would make the photo look better. It’s not art; it’s documentary. You can’t let false information into a photo, just like a journalistic article.”

The Ethical Journalist details some of the ways in which editors manipulate images in the chapter Ethics Issues Specific to Visual Journalism.” While some methods improve photo quality and frame the image, others can manipulate the scene and alter reality.

Photojournalists can deceive the audience by stage-managing (posing or ‘setting up’) the scene being photographed; or altering the content or context of an otherwise authentic photograph,Foreman writes.


When Manipulation is Acceptable

Price says it’s OK to adjust the color and lighting in a photo … to a certain extent.

“That’s the equivalent of a pianist taking a Chopin score and interpreting it as louder or softer,” he says. “We weren’t around; we don’t know what he was thinking. We can interpret it and it’s OK to use more or less intensity, but only you saw that scene. You know what it looks like.

“If you’re shooting a sunset, it needs to look like a sunset. Don’t overthink it. I don’t think it’s ethical to take a sunset photo and put a blue filter over it that makes it look like dawn. If you just want to make prints for a gallery, you’re an artist, not a photographer.”

Foreman, in The Ethical Journalist, writes: “Most newsroom codes permit the computer equivalent of … ‘burning’ and ‘dodging.’ Parts of the image can be darkened or lightened to improve reproduction, so that what the audience sees is a closer to what the photographer saw.”

Price agrees.

“Some edits are valid. Your eye sees more color can you can interpret on a camera,” he says. “We see a much better color range, so we go through all kinds of physical effort … controlling the highlights or printing on high contrast paper to give it more punch. You can really translate the reality in the printing process through the half-tone process and by the time it’s in a newspaper it looks fairly accurate.

“So, all of these things boil down to ‘What’s your motivation?’ It’s personal; only you were there. You have to make ethical judgments about what you will present for publication.”

The Ethical Journalist discusses the framing of photos for dramatic effect: “A normally acceptable editing technique is ‘cropping’ – removing extraneous parts of an image at its borders. This focuses the viewer’s attention on the most important parts of the picture. Cropping is necessary because it is impractical for photojournalists to frame scenes precisely as they shoot.”


Beware Fakes

Hundreds of magazines and newspapers have been criticized for use of falsified images, which makes Price and other photojournalists cautious in how they present their photos.

“I’m not naive. I know people set up situations and manipulate images,” Price says. “If you’re a photographer and you work for any period of time, by osmosis you will notice these ethical concerns. In journalism, you make it look like what you saw. If you go beyond, you might get it published but eventually, even if it’s after a hundred or after a thousand times, someone will notice.

“Sometimes factors are out of your control. If you tone an image on your monitor and it looks different on another monitor or different to the web designer, sometimes by the time an image is published it looks totally different. That happens to my photos all the time, but you have to ‘stay in the lane’ so to speak.

“Once you start putting in skies and clouds and things where they weren’t there, you’ll get in trouble. Just read the National Photographers Code of Ethics, and I think it’s pretty spot-on. It looks at a lot of successes and failures and sets up a system of the best things you can do to create an ethical photo.”

Price doesn’t have anything against creative editing in an appropriate setting.

“Almost anything you can conjure up in your mind’s eye is valid at certain times. If you want to make a big composite and sell it in a gallery, go for it. It’s like taking a piece of metal and carving it into a sculpture. It’s OK, but journalism is different, and there’s no place for fakes in journalism.”