Teaching International Journalism, Part 9 -- Ethical Considerations

Throwing Ethics Out the Window and the Example of Dangerous Captions

Often times, when journalists go far away from home, ethics get chucked out the window. They ignore the basics. They don't care about protecting vulnerable sources. They caption photographs without naming people, and with sweeping, denigrating statements instead. For example, they'll have a photo of young women standing, with a caption saying, "More and More Young Women are Turning to Prostitution", even though it's a stock photo and the women might have nothing to do with prostitution.

The Same Standards Should Apply Everywhere

A list I've compiled about ethics in journalism today, here, applies to the international realm .... Seek Truth, Stay Away from PR, Spin, Lies, Propaganda, Protect Vulnerable Sources, Be Transparent About Your Reporting, Be Courageous and Be Original.

Case Study, The Full Picture

The above pictures center on Fabienne Cherisma, who was killed by stray bullets after the 2010 Haitian earthquake when security forces were trying to control looters. Depending on the angle of the photo, though, the story of the pictured moment changes. Here's a full analysis.

Several of the photographers, before the scrum photo was widely released as well, won awards for their pictures, which showed the isolated deceased young woman. As the article above indicates .... "To top it all off, accusations were hurled against the photographers that they had moved the body and the picture frames to make the scene look more dramatic (although other pictures and videos show that other civilians might have done this)."

Here's an interesting article on the "expanding public sphere" of international reporting. While ethics in international reporting should have always been respected, nowadays the global village of social media makes it so that accountability factors forces more and more journalists with unethical behavior to face up to their practices.

Case Study, The Drowned Child

The photo of a young Syrian refugee boy drowned and washed up on a beach in Greece made front pages and ran across the Internet, sparking new conversations and concern about the refugee crisis. Some were in favor of the photo getting such distribution, but others disagreed. At times the image was blurred, but the conversation dominated social media for a few days. A Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the situation sparked even more outrage.

Human or Journalist? The Case of Kevin Carter and the Vulture Photograph

The above photo got South African photographer Kevin Carter a Pulitzer Prize, but the backlash seems to have contributed to his suicide several years later. From Wikipedia .... "This was the situation for the girl in the photo taken by Carter. A vulture landed behind the girl. To get the two in focus, Carter approached the scene very slowly so as not to scare the vulture away and took a photo from approximately 10 metres (33 ft). He took a few more photos before chasing the bird away."

Should Carter have chased the vulture away before taking the photo? Does a life matter more than a story? I would say yes, including your own.

Meaningful Consent

Here's an excellent article on considerations a journalist should take into account while reporting in trauma situations, where ethical behavior should be higher, rather than lower.

Chaos and horrors should not make everyone disregard what they stand for, quite the contrary. Often cases, in international journalism, the reporter is the "empowered party", and should wield his/her power ethically. Here's a reframing of the above article with a specific case study of using the story of a rape victim in Haiti without consent.

Anonymity and Identification

I have no problems with protecting sources through anonymity, or changing their names, if explicitly indicated. However, on certain stories, this can raise suspicion of fabrication, especially if there is a pattern. Premier investigative journalist Seymour Hersch has some angry critics, even though he's exposed many important stories, including the My Lai Massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War, for which he received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Some wonder if late in his career, he has gone too far into conspiracy theories, or if, relying on anonymous sources, he is a truth-teller.

Unless exposing something very important, your own identification as a journalist (this goes into the earlier category of transparency as well) is tantamount, or there could be blood on your hands, as this prank gone horribly wrong demonstrates.

Propaganda, Spin and Taking Sides

Powerful organizations are masters of propaganda and spin, (it's one of the reasons for them being powerful) and giving false information to advance their agenda, and this includes media organizations or even individual journalists. Held up as a paragon of objectivity and excellence in early international reporting, there has been discussion recently of whether Edward Murrow was using his reporting to lead America into World War Two. A book on the topic is called Broadcasts from the Blitz: How Edward R. Murrow Helped Lead America into War.

While I covered the Ivorian civil war in the early 2000s, Ivorian newspapers were either for the rebels or for the government, so the information varied greatly. Some photos from other conflicts were often used to provoke outrage. Both sides lied and it was very difficult to tell the truth. French journalists were accused of helping rebels design their letterhead and logos. Throughout my time, I was accused of being a spy and a propagandist, as well as a puppet of Western, market-driven ideology, since I worked for the Voice of America.

Here's an interesting article on how so much effort is put nowadays on social media propaganda and how these efforts relate to present-day conflicts.

The only defense you have is the work you produce, and to always rely on your own first-hand reporting, or on reporting by other journalists you absolutely trust, and to have your bs detector on full force at all times, whatever the source. Information can be a very dangerous weapon, so make sure to circulate or recirculate it very carefully.

Advocacy Journalism

Here's an interesting article on the interplay between caring and being a journalist.

I believe advocacy journalism is fine, but I also believe truths you find in your reporting should override any ideological presumptions, however awkward that may be. As the Wikipedia entry states on advocacy journalism, the reporting process should always remain transparent.

Currently advocacy journalism seems to be growing as this academic article indicates, which is fine, but it's also important to remain ethical in your journalist practices even when practicing this form of reporting. There are of course many degrees of advocacy journalism, and all have their value, as long as they seek an overall truth, and only use factual reporting, and not distorted or fabricated elements for the sole purpose of constructing a single-minded narrative.

Here's an excellent article on why advocacy journalism is no longer a 'dirty' word, and another on why those who deride it, are basically deluding themselves.

If you enjoyed this lesson plan, here are all the chapters in My Guide to Teaching International Freelance Journalism.

Part 1, Geographies


Part 2, A Brief History Until Today


Part 3, Before You Go


Part 4, Potential Clients


Part 5, When You First Arrive


Part 6, Surviving the Game


Part 7, Books and Films To Educate and Inspire


Part 8, Perceptions


Part 9, Ethical Considerations


Part 10, Migrations and the Other


Part 11, Going Glocal


Part 12, Musings, Behind the Scenes and Critiques


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