Student guest post: Catastrophe, photography and media ethics

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Kinsey Sullivan enjoys studying and writing about international arts and culture. In May, she will graduate from UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, after which she is excited to move to London for work. Follow her on Twitter at @misskinseylane.

We were still reeling from the news of the bombing at the Boston Marathon on Monday when we learned another devastating explosion had occurred near Waco, Texas, in the early hours of Thursday morning. Images of burning buildings and of the wounded ran constantly, a byproduct of the 24-hour news cycle.

As we cope with these catastrophes, it is critical that we evaluate not only what we information we create and consume, but how we create and consume it. Specifically, we must consider the ethics of photo editing in conflict situations, because of the graphic and exposing nature of these images.

Photos are valuable in conflict situations because they do help viewers understand and contextualize the information they receive; they help tell the story more effectively.

Think to the photographs circulating post-9/11, with which the New York Times did an exceptional job. Those images helped people around the world conceptualize the utter devastation and heart-wrenching grief, as well as the resilience and strength of the human spirit. Both aspects of conflict situations are vital to understand, and photography allows an unprecedented closeness to both extremes.

Journalists often walk a fine line between documenting and exploiting in sensitive situations, and this is particularly true of photos and film.

Photographs offer a seemingly unbiased and unmediated perspective on these events. In essence, they offer the illusion of objectivity. However, objectivity, even in photography, is impossible.

The framing of the photo, the perspective, the focus and the proximity all affect how we interpret the image; all of these elements are determined by a photographer. This fact, combined with the potentially disturbing nature of such photos, means that we must tread very delicately as reporters and editors.

As we edit such images, we must question the ethics of images and avoid exploiting the situation or the victims at all costs. Since such editing is subjective, it comes back to editing and taste. A few things to consider:

  • Does the image help propel the story and aid readers, while avoiding sensationalism?
  • Is the image respectful of the situation and the victims?
  • Does the image present an accurate depiction of the situation?
  • As a photographer or editor, would you be willing to be in the image?

Some examples from CNN’s coverage of the bombing at the Boston Marathon will help illustrate the potential problems. Though it isn’t graphic, this CNN slideshow does not propel the story and seems gratuitous.

However, this slideshow includes many graphic images that are both troublesome and seem to lack sensitivity. Additionally, viewers are not warned about the upcoming graphic images. While photograph four does seem to express the chaos of the situation while being deferential to the victims, photograph seven shows, I think, extremely poor taste in editing.

As we deal with the news of the explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas, let us remember that these are not just stories but human stories. Editing the images of conflict is critical, and in these situations, it is critical that it is done well.


  1. Thanks for this article. I just finished reading the Times editorial on the same topic. Good job.

  2. Reblogged this on kinsey sullivan and commented:
    I’m thrilled to share a post I wrote for The Editor’s Desk, which is a great blog about editing and journalism. It’s written and managed by Andy Bechtel, my professor for Advanced Editing. This week, I focused on the media ethics of photography in conflict and catastrophe situations. Click through to read on!
    Stay Strong,

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