The Ethics and Reality of News Photography

There was a fair amount of concern and consternation this week about a photographer who had re-staged a moment in a news coverage situation.

The incident in question happened at an anti-mask protest in January. The photographer is accused of staging a photograph of a child throwing a mask into a smoldering trash can where protesters had burned their own masks.

Oddly, much of the time, manipulating a photo of a moment fails to improve on the real image or session.

So, have I ever manipulated a news photo? By the standard of the National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics, no.


Often my own presence and the presence of other journalists directly affects the event. In a strictly feature situation, people are tempted to pose for me. Sometimes they’ll tell their children to pose for me. That’s fine, but it does interrupt the moment, and changes the image from a photo of what’s going on to a photo of people posing for a photo.

But in a straight news situation, that is less likely. Firefighters aren’t likely to stop rolling up their hoses to pose for me. Police aren’t likely to grin at me when they’re stringing crime-scene tape.

But I have noticed a tendency in my journalistic environment for people who know me, and know what I’m doing, to move out of the way without my asking them to. I know they’re just trying to help, but sometimes that can be frustrating, especially when I am shooting with a very wide angle lens and am using people in the foreground to express that near-far relationship that can help lead the reader/viewer into the image.

But then, the water of photojournalism can get a little muddy: what if I move one direction or another to emphasize the smoke at a wildfire? What if I choose a super-telephoto to show how far traffic backed up at a car crash? What if I use a slow shutter speed to express motion?

To some degree, in those ways and more, every photograph we make has some element of manipulation.

My photographer friends Courtney Morehead and Abby Machetta make pictures at a basketball game last year. They aren't strictly news photographers, so the rules about manipulation don't really apply to them.
My photographer friends Courtney Morehead and Abby Machetta make pictures at a basketball game last year. They aren’t strictly news photographers, so the rules about manipulation don’t really apply to them.

1 Comment

  1. Every news photo is a choice. We isolate a single moment for any number of reasons — an emotion, a juxtaposition, an expression, even a quality of light. This lens or that lens, this position or that position to shoot from, this frame or that frame during editing, all are choices. But there’s a clear line between those things and coaching participants at a news event, as it appears happened in that case. Sad, because the photographer seems to have the drive to be really good.

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