Friday, March 20, 2015

Journalism ethics question -- when a picture is only an illusion

So here's today's journalism ethics question.

The latest edition of USC's Garnet and Black Magazine‚Äč has a big story on a woman who was a teenage mom, but has worked hard to be a college student while caring for her 3-year-old daughter. Very nice story and very inspirational stuff.

And very nice "awwwwww" photos of mom and daughter.

 Except ... At the very end of the story there is this: "*Models portrayed in this spread are not Bourne and her daughter, or an actual mother-daughter pair." (The online version I'm linking to has only one photo -- the print version has several, including a full-page one with reverse type over it that starts the story.)

So what do you think? A couple of people -- not journalists -- I've shown it to have reacted rather strongly and negative.

They feel "taken in." "I'm reading it, enjoying the pictures -- and then it's not them." Would it have made a difference had the mag headed the story with the disclaimer?

 (I've still yet to figure out what the asterisk refers to.)

This is from Chris Rosa, the editor in chief, after I asked him for his thoughts:
"We should have written a disclaimer at the beginning of the post instead of the end. The original photos of the real mother were extremely poor quality and we didn't have time to reschedule with her, so we had to improvise."

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At 3/20/15, 11:29 PM, Blogger // said...

Hi, I totally understand the questioning of ethics around using these photos. While I would perhaps agree that using models to portray the subject in a story is unethical, I would disagree in this case.

I would like to start off with the fact that this is a magazine and not necessarily a traditional news source, where there are more rules around cutlines, photo portrayal/subject etc.

I work at a nonprofit organization where we also produce a magazine and share those stories online as well. The majority of the images we use are stock photos. We do not have the resources to shoot original images (unless it's from an event we've attended or we have images submitted from families we feature in our magazine).

When I first started working there I was under the impression that the images I saw were the real person in that story. After much use of the stock folder in our server, I discovered they were not and I was disappointed. But I very soon understood why this was the case (and this goes back to what resources are available).

I would say this is the same case, unless there was a cutline those photos saying that the models were in fact the mother and daughter in the story. That would be an issue.

And if images like this appeared in a supposed credible newspaper for example, that would be unethical to use as a photo spread.

At 3/21/15, 2:21 AM, Blogger Paul Wiggins said...

I'm assuming an intention to be ethical, and a lack of experience. Each of those is a good thing. There's an art to illustrating when you don't have art. And it can't be taught in five minutes.

At 3/21/15, 10:38 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I don't see this as a huge ethical issue -- except for the aspect that the story and photos together are designed to tug at the reader's heartstrings. The photos especially do that.

So the ethical aspect for me would be the placement of that disclaimer. I think the somewhat visceral reactions noted reinforce that. So is it ethical to put the reader in that frame and then spring the disclaimer? Thus my question initially that got to people's thoughts on placement of that disclaimer.

As for using stock photos "//", I'd hope you simply have a source line under the photo or as part of the header material on each story (I've seen it done both ways. with the header often being common when all the photos come from one agency). That would take care of it for me. If you don't, then I think the "we're not a traditional news source" is a bit disingenuous in today's digital age where credibility is more transactional then reputational and news/journalism is highly distributed. You simply can't get away with that dodge anymore.

And yeah, Paul. It's a learning experience for them (and this sort of public questioning in this day and age is part of it, fortunately or unfortunately).


At 3/21/15, 12:26 PM, Blogger Jacqueline Alexander said...

We just went through something somewhat similar at Clemson. Students placed a disclaimer at the end of a story. They need someone to ask them, "How many of your readers do you REALLLY think read all the way to the end of the story?"

Unfortunately, it's lack of knowledge or employing a shortcut in most cases rather than a deliberate breach of journalistic ethics/standards.


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