Press neutrality – the view down the lens

Post length: 1,048 words, about 4 and a half minutes.

I read an interesting blog post earlier this week – “To read or not to read?” – written by an MA broadcast journalism student.  In it he talks about the ethics surrounding reading other people’s text messages without their consent.  He uses this example to illustrate a point regarding investigative journalism as a whole.  While we agree on the main point in question, I’m not sure I agreed with everything he says.  I’d recommend you go and have a look at his post, and my comments at the end, as I’m not going to repeat them here.

Then, this weekend, I spotted a copy of The Daily Telegraph on the train open on an article titled “The Mandy and Osborne Show had us in stitches”, so I had a look.  The article I had initially seen was, in fact, not very interesting at all (some comments by an actress about The Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year awards), but the item above it was.  The section I was reading was the comment section, and the piece above related to the current economic climate.  The article is clearly comment – it’s not hard fact, it’s one writer’s opinion on the way Gordon Brown has handled the slow down in the economy.  As good comment should be it’s a very biased article.

The blog post and the article may not be related, but they started me thinking – do these issues of ethics and bias have any impact on the way I work as a photojournalist?

To deviate quickly. Charles Moore’s article begins:

“The credit crunch is not great pictorially. One can tolerate only so many photographs of screens turning red and young traders burying their lavatory-brush haircuts in their hands.”

To some extent I agree – the economy doesn’t lend itself to great photos – but there are some great shots out there which relate to this.  It makes the photographer look for new ways to go about shooting the news and brings up some very artistic work.  It also happens pretty slowly (in photography terms), so there’s plenty of time to set up and get the very best shot you can and you’re not just shooting in bulk in the hope that one image will be worth something.  Put it this way: it’s no riot.

I’m freelance and make my money (when shooting editorial work) by selling my pictures on the wires.  The more outlets that pick up an image the more money I get.  The more images I sell the more money I get.  When I’m in the field shooting a news story I don’t know how writers and editors are going to spin the story, indeed different outlets will spin it different ways.  Therefore it’s in my interest to shoot an as un-biased set as possible.  For example: if I shoot 12 pictures of Gordon Brown with a light above his head which makes it look like he has a halo.  I put them on the wires and one image gets picked up by one newspaper who want to illustrate their story about how Brown is the saviour of the economy.  However, if I shoot 6 pictures like this and another 6 where he’s waving a large knife around looking menacing (during a publicity at a butchers, say), I might well manage to sell two pictures – one halo to the previous paper, and one knife to a paper wanting to paint him as the butcher of the economy.  So now I’ve made twice as much money.  And if I shoot 12 different pictures of him doing a whole range of things I might well sell 12 images to 12 different outlets each with their own agenda.  And now I’ve made 12 times as much money and can take the rest of the week off.

You see, as a freelance, it’s in my interest to not let my own opinion cloud my artistic (and business) mind.  I guess this changes if you’re staff.  Thank god I’m not staff.

And so to Wimbles’ blog post.  He’s being taught the legal and moral boundaries journalists need to work within as part of his course (or, at least with the moral issues, he’s being made aware of the complexities he needs to take into account when choosing his own boundaries).  While I appreciate we work in different areas – he’s studying broadcast journalism while my work as a photographer is generally for print and new media – there are some similarities (the legal framework is the same, for example).  When it comes to moral boundaries I think it’s easier for me to qualify my choices.  If I take a picture of something then the thing I saw was visible to everyone.  I’m not an investigative journalist, I’m simply an observer.  If my camera can see it then anyone could have seen it and by publishing that picture I’m not revealing anything anyone’s tried very hard to keep secret.  There are gray areas – the paparazzi’s treatment of celebrities is an obvious example – but, for me at least, the boundaries are clear here too: as soon as someone courts a press photographer to further their career they have no room to complain if the photographer then uses them to do the same.

Finally I should say that, luckily for me, I’m very rarely in the situation where these issues come into play.  When I’m shooting editorially I’m at events – sporting fixtures, carnivals, concerts, etc. – and I don’t go about making a living from chasing cutting edge news.  It’s encouraging that courses like the one being taken by Wimbles teach the moral side of journalism as well as the legal side.  It’s very reassuring to know that it’s people like him, with apparently a very balanced view on these issues, who are the future of journalism in this country. But I do sometimes fear that, once out of the protected environment of the college situation, this solid grounding and common sense will come a little un-stuck when it meets with the real daily pressures of journalism and, ultimately, the need to make a living from the stories being written.

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