Photos, ethics and what we should be talking about


Today, a lot of national attention focused on a front-page photograph of a man trapped in the path of an oncoming subway train. Was publishing that photograph good journalism, ethical journalism? Or does the question of the ethics of publishing the photograph miss a larger point?

Stephen Mayes, one of the panelists on NPR’s Talk of the Nation noted that the debate over ethics seemed to keep journalists in the role of patriarchal gatekeepers, making judgments about what other people should or should not see. Moreover, Mayes pointed out, the single-minded focus on the photograph meant that, “the discussion becomes one about vilifying the Post rather than thinking of the issues that it raises — around public safety, mental health, things we should be talking about.”

Mayes makes a good point — those are hugely important issues, and they were not part of the national discussion. In effect, the loud debate over the ethics of photojournalism meant that the “gatekeepers” effectively prevented discussion of other issues raised by the death of the man in the subway.

Here’s another story: This week the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in the United States, adopted a resolution publicly denouncing Israel’s decision to increase settlement activity. Though the resolution was reported in Ha’aretz, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and the Economist (London), it was almost entirely ignored in the U.S. media. If the New York Times or the Washington Post had reported this resolution, would it have increased public attention to the issue of the settlements?  Is this declaration by the largest Jewish movement in the United States something that people “should be talking about” here — or is it only of relevance in Jerusalem and in London?

Back in the day, “the press” decided what we “should be talking about.” The New Yorker press critic A.J. Liebling wrote back in 1960 that, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Despite the focus on one photograph and the apparent decision to ignore another story, that’s no longer as true today as it was 50 years ago.  

Today, every computer and smartphone is, in effect, a mini-press. “The people formerly known as the audience” are talking back to the owners of the presses (and airwaves) and practicing their own freedom of the press. For examples — take a look at today’s TC Daily Planet, with a thoughtful discussion of evaluation in arts education, written in response to Sheila Regan’s blog on the same topic. Or Charles Hallman’s article about the whitest team in the NBA, which picks up on and responds to a Star Tribune article on the same theme. Or the ongoing conversations about education in the comment sections.

The shape of this process is fluid, and it’s clear that not all voices get equal weight. Nor, I would argue, should they all get identical treatment. Some arguments are better formulated, some reports are more credible or factual.

To some degree, editors decide whose contributions get published, and whether people are published in the comment section or as a columnist or reporter.  Increasingly, though, people can put their voices out in blogs or Facebook or other platforms, and build their own audiences by the consistency and quality of their contributions.

The practice of journalism is changing from a lecture mode — with journalists telling readers what the news is — to a conversation, with readers talking back and contributing insights, opinions, and additional facts. These discussions make clear that “the people formerly known as the audience” now take part in the news conversation, making timely and substantive contributions to the news process.