Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Digital Dilemmas

Here is one of those new ethical questions that arise in the digital age: Should a paper that won't print photos refer readers to them at another site online?

The case in question is a story in this morning's The State newspaper about four killings during Labor Day weekend (we can debate later the relative hyperbole of this breathless lede: Columbia endured a bloody Labor Day weekend, with the number of murder victims this year doubling in a grisly 27-hour span.)

The story says police want to talk to several men seen at a gas station where a middle-school student was shot:
Police released a security camera photo of several young men in what appears to be an argument at the Gaz-Bah station at the intersection of Farrow and Wilkes roads. They also released a picture of a silver Pontiac Grand Am.

Crisp and McCants described the young men in the photo as “persons of interest” and say they might have driven or ridden in the car.

The State newspaper has not pulished the picture of the young men because they have not been identified as suspects. It can be viewed at the department’s Web site, columbiapd.com.

“Our focus is on everyone in that picture,” McCants said. “We believe they may have information that could be helpful to our investigation.”
So is the paper doing the public a service by referring people to the police site where they can view a picture the paper finds improper to actually print in its pages or put online? After all, isn't that what we've been harping on all these recent years -- link, link, link (although the paper did not include a live link in the story online, just the referral as you see it).

Or is it a case of being editorially milquetoast, ethically impaired or worse? The law calls doing such things being an accessory. Are we accessories when we handle things this way?

Does it matter that the paper didn't make it easy to get to the link and then provided a general link that led only to the home page and not to the news release buried in the site with the photos (link to the one in question). The State did publish a second photo, of the car only, that police are interested in.

Not sure I have answers here, but lots of questions. Please share your thoughts and comments.

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At 9/4/07, 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I would have published the photo, Doug, but I understand why the paper did not. The photo shows at least nine people, all of whom may have been involved, but they may not. I understand the paper's caution in wanting to protect the innocent (if that is what the paper was thinking).

Sending interested readers to the Web site seems to be a reasonable alternative.

At 9/4/07, 6:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doug, doesn't this go to the issue we've been discussing about the mass media is no longer really in charge, and rules that were made when the sources of information were much more limited no longer carry the same weight?

And that it's up to news consumers to provide their own ability to filter and judge? It may be up to the professional news guide to provide context?

I would either publisher or just say "pictures available at" with no apology for not publishing ... the old rule that a paper might have an obligation to publish is also smashed in a distributed media world.

At 9/5/07, 4:10 PM, Blogger Pam Robinson said...

Doug, isn't this similiar to what the Seattle papers encountered a couple of weeks ago--pictures of some allegedly suspicious guys on a ferry and the cops wanted to question them. So photos of the guys were offered up to various news organizations, some of which ran the photos, some of which did not. I have to say that running pictures of people in these circumstances makes me a tad uncomfortable.

At 9/5/07, 9:47 PM, Blogger Doug said...

I vaguely remembered the Seattle controversy. Thanks for reminding me. For anyone following this, the Post-Intelligencer wouldn't publish photos circulated by the FBI of Islamic-looking men on a ferry. Passengers and ferry workers had said the men seemed "overly interested in the workings and layouts of the ferries."

-- Here is the P-I story.
-- Here are the more than 100 comments, many bashing the P-I for political correctness and timidity, but some that support the paper, summed up as one put it, "Paranoia is not a good way of promoting public safety."
-- And Managing Editor David McCumber's explanation of why the P-I did not publish.

Good stuff worthy of pondering. But what distintinguishes it from the Columbia case to my mind is that the P-I did not provide a link to the photos, either. It made the decision not to publish and did not do so in any medium.

Which brings us to John's and Howard's thoughts -- and thanks both of you for your quick responses, too.

Howard, your solution -- publish or link but don't apologize either way -- goes to the immediate uneasiness I have. (John, I wasn't quite so clear on whether the "reasonable alternative" included the explanation for not publishing or not.) If we take a stand that we are not going to publish, then isn't referring people to the pictures online a cop-out and undermining of our position? So yours, Howard, would at least be cosistent to a defensible -- but debatable -- principle.

To help define the debate, let's take this to the extreme (keeping in mind that extremes are always suspect but have usefulness in sharply outlining the issues).

You have a story about a beheading somewhere. Let's say it's of a prominent person to give it some juice.

Well, you tell your audience, we find the pictures morally repugnant and will not print them. But here's a link ...

Would you do that, dear readers of this blog?

One one hand, the essentially libertarian argument Howard advances (and that I would have to acknowledge I largely have advanced on this blog without necessarily subscribing to the ideology) would say yes, each individual's innate capacity to make such judgments and evaluations must be respected in all cases.

But the ethics of Aristotle would argue that in the balance there is some point beyond which we should not go. If you tend to be more Kantian -- or "kantankerous" -- you might well propose those limits are absolute. In either case, the suggestion is that "guide" does not abdicate all gatekeeping, that the editor and outlet still must operate within their own perceived values and those of their perceived communities (even if community takes on a new meaning online).

But if you say "whoa, not going there" and won't publish that photo or link, then the question: Why would we think our audience is better-equipped to filter and judge nine guys at a gas station and less so a more grisly scene?

It sems to me that once we extablish that moral/ethical position anywhere along the scale, then doing what the State did might reasonably be argued to be an ethical cop-out. Before, when we could not link and things suffered -- or benefited -- from such "practical obscurity"; these were questions we seldom had to worry about.

In the digital age, they leap to the fore.

Any other thoughts anyone?

At 9/6/07, 1:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is not the kind of story where you divide the readership into: Those who don't want it forced on them in the newspaper that comes into their home at breakfast, and those less squeamish who decide for themselves whether to click the link.

If it's irresponsible to publish the photo on paper because of the damage it might do to innocent people, then it's just as damaging online.

If it's OK to tell people where they can see the photo, then it's OK to publish it on paper. You might even be able to provide context about the police investigation and how it might draw innocent people into it.


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