Photo Credit: AP Photo/Richard Drew "The Falling Man"
Monday, August 29, 2016
Ethical Egoism or Public's Closing Ears
Warning: This article contains a photo at the end that can be seen as graphic.
When having a discussion with my Ethics class about what pushes a journalist to be unethical, many of the groups reasons related to the journalist's personal interests, most commonly relating back to money. Examples included: rushing to get an article done in time, making the story more exciting so the journalist would get more clicks or views, bias toward one side to attract a certain audience and trying to make a story out of nothing. A lot of these unethical decisions come from the journalist's pressure to keep his/her job and get paid.
According to Moral Reasoning for Journalists by Steven Knowlton and Bill Reader, ethical egoism is defined as a way of thinking that reflects the idea that "all of us are, eventually, concerned only with our own well-being," or acting "upon that choice that will produce the greatest good for me."
The ideas of what make journalists unethical in my class seems to echo the same ideas that I hear from many of my relatives, friends, co-workers, and even other scholars and journalists themselves. In Malcolm Harris's article 'Unethical journalism can make Ferguson more dangerous,' Harris talks about how by taking photos of the Ferguson curfew violators put them in danger.
Harris mentioned in his article that, through social media, he saw fellow journalists showing very little regard to "the well-being of their subjects, repeatedly putting them at further risk of harm" by telling the media, and therefore the police, exactly where the violators were at that very moment.
Harris attributes this unethical behavior to the environment where the correct picture or post can gain a journalist thousands of followers on Twitter and national profile. Harris noted in his article, "Journalists are supposed to care about people's safety as well as the quality of their stories and the number of followers on Twitter they gain."
Jenny Marc reports similar ethical problems in "Journalists reposting on the refugee crisis are acting unethically. I've seen it first hand in Calais." Marc talks about her time in Calais, France and her experiences with the refugees and filming.
Marc makes a point in her article to emphasize the time she takes to gain the subject's trust and consent before pointing a lens in his/her face. Why many of the subjects turned down her request to film them for her stories did not come clear until she began asking them. She found, "that the reason was part of the story too." The subjects feared harming the family and friends that had been left behind.
Unfortunately, Marc notes that she saw and heard from many refugees and volunteers, that several fellow journalists were filming whatever they wanted or needed for their stories. Marc finished her article with, "I worry that some of us are forgetting to employ the most basic and human practices of all" to stop, to ask and to listen."
In both of these cases, one could say that these journalists were working and acting for their own personal gains, whether it be to gain likes or to please an editor. But maybe there is another side to this. Maybe journalists are doing what they know how to do best: get the facts and the story to those of us in the nation that can't be there to witness the tragedy ourselves.
Knowlton and Reader talk in their book about the idea that deep down people (and animals) want to keep their society functioning. The example Knowlton and Reader use is with bees. A bee will return to the hive to tell her bee co-workers that there is a good patch of flowers and she will then give them directions on how to get to the flowers. If she "were to transmit false information and thus send the other bees off in the wrong direction, the whole hive would suffer."
In other words, while there are better ways to obtain and send the information out, in the moment the journalists may be just reporting what they can and have to get the true information to the readers. Take the 'Falling Man,' a photo of a man falling from one of the Twin Towers on 9/11, for example.
In 'The Falling Man: An Interview with Henry Singer' by Adam Harrison Levy, Levy and Singer talk about the photo itself (and other 9/11 photos) as well as the ethical dilemma with photos.
Singer makes the point that the image serves as a representation to the audience of the true horror of the day. He also mentions that the victims who chose to jump from the towers "weren't acknowledged. And there is nothing worse (than) not being acknowledged." These people existed. These people were a part of families who mourned their loss in the days following. Pictures like The Falling Man are proof that the jumpers were there and are victims of the tragedy too.
Levy asked Singer, "Should there be a moral or an aesthetic limit to images of atrocity?" Singer agreed that there should be, but that each person draws the line of what's okay to publish at a different place.
I think, overall, The Falling Man is a photo that was needed in the news of the tragedy. Yes, some say it was gruesome and even unethical to shoot a photo of a man dying, but in this case it was a part of the attack. It was a point that needed to be acknowledged so that the public could move forward in their response to the attacks.
This last point comes back to the idea of the hive being able to thrive because the truth of the information was given. As for Calais and Ferguson, there were better, more ethical ways that could produce the same, or at least similar responses. In the case of Ferguson, Harris suggested that the journalist take timing into consideration: publishing the details or photos after a small delay is good enough for the readers and has no use for the police. According to Harris, "taking time to think about consequences for your subjects isn't an abdication of your duties as a journalist; it's a vital part of fulfilling them."