Challenges with graphic photojournalism

Without a doubt, pictures are worth 1,000 words, playing a vital part in communicating messages and changing history. But with influences from new media and backlash from consumers on publishing graphic content, present-day photojournalism is beginning to face increasingly more challenges than ever before. David Rohde’s ‘Pictures That Change History: Why the World Needs Photojournalists’, Shanifa Nasser’s ‘Puppies, selfies, corpses: How graphic images on social media can change your brain’, Julia Angwin and Matthew Rose’s ‘When News Is Gruesome, What’s Too Graphic’ and Fred Ritchin’s ‘Why Violent News Images Matter’ are a few views journalism or opinion articles with different perspectives on the positive or negative impacts photojournalism has on society. Together, they constitute a shared understanding of photojournalism in the 21st century, particularly in relation to graphic images portrayed in the media.

Historically, the art of photography has served as a crucial means of capturing places and events for future generations (Duncan 2015) and documenting what is presented in the facts. Yet, there continues to be a debate surrounding the exposure of such graphic images. The National Press Photographers Association’s (NPPA) Code of Ethics lays out in crystalised detail about the acceptable terms of professional photojournalism. It reads, in part:

“Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated.”

The big question is the extent to which media outlets should go or restrain from showing human tragedy. Nasser, a news reporter for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) News, claims that exposure to uncensored graphic images can change the brain, as explicitly stated in the title “Puppies, selfies, corpses: How graphic images on social media can change your brain”. With hundreds of thousands of atrocities taking place and photographs of them circulating on traditional and new media, constant flow and explicit exposure to these atrocities builds up unnecessary insecurity, tension and trauma. Nasser justifies this causal argument with an appeal to authority, quoting a Toronto psychologist, Dr. Oren Amitay, who calls it second hand trauma:

“‘With enough viewing, we are now coming to understand that somebody could be traumatized second-hand… If you’re always seeing it then you have the sense that this is the norm, then you have the sense that the world is far more dangerous than it is.’”

An unwarranted induction or hasty/over-generalisation lies in this justification however. It’s almost as if the justification is suggesting that when you are always seeing these graphic images, you will automatically be traumatized second-hand. With traditional and new mediums circulating violent photographs everyday from the television screen to the home screen on Facebook, the global population would be entirely traumatised based on this suggestion when in fact not every person exposed to these graphic images constantly is mentally affected by it.                     

To further support Nasser’s claim, Ritchin, a professor at New York University and co-director of the Photography & Human Rights program at the Tisch School of the Arts, wrote an opinion piece in 2014 for TIME Magainze taking a different approach to arguing and justifying the claim. The central claim is found in the second to last paragraph of the article:

“… they [graphic photographs] provide reference points for both the present and the longer view of history”

Yet, he spends a large portion of his article presenting counterarguments, offering justifications as to the immorality of violent images.

Ritchin offers four primary evaluative arguments explaining reasons why editors hold back graphic photographs from the audience. First, he argues that publications from mainstream outlets purposely withholds graphic imagery in “fear of offending, or even from a feat that readers will abandon the publication altogether.” He adds two quotes, one from a photographer Christoph Bangert who asks: “How can we refuse to acknowledge a mere representation— a picture— of a horrific event, while other people are forced to live through the horrific event itself?” and another from a photographer of an excruciating photo that went unpublished in American Photo magazine in 1991 who questioned: “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.” These two quotes from industry professions aim to argue against the first counterargument in support of Ritchin’s original claim.

The second argument coincides with Nasser’s warning of second-hand trauma. Ritchin believes editors are ethically taking into consideration of the children’s wellbeing before publishing “egregious imagery”. Then, Ritchin takes it further with his third argument by arguing that industry professions are at risk of being affected by constant exposure to these graphic images as well. He uses a study by Anthony Feinstein, MD, of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto as a justification appealing to authority that “‘… frequent, repetitive viewing of violent news-related video and other media raises news professionals’ vulnerability to a range of psychological injuries, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.’” For documentary photographer and member of the VII Photo agency, Ed Kashi, it’s much more than that. In his article ‘The Unspoken Consequences of a Photojournalists Life’ published on his website but later in TIME Magazine, he discusses the aftermath of his 30 years as a photojournalist, spending his lifetime trying to fade into the background to achieve “candid intimacy” is his photographs. He describes:

“Losing myself in other people’s lives, whether in their dramas of joy, pain, or transition, has turned into not being able to find myself in my own life.”

There is an appeal to emotion as Kashi describes one the worst consequences is “… a deep sense of loneliness and abject certainty.” He doesn’t believe the profession is all bad because of the rare privilege to gain expansive knowledge of the world, cultures, the processes of technology and business as well as the small yet magical moments of daily life.” Yet it is very easy to lose yourself if you are fully consumed in your practice.

Finally, the last argument lies on the other side of the spectrum in which Ritchie says:

“… a fear by others that readers are seeing too many such images and, as a result, are losing their ability to empathise and evaluate what is going on in the avalanche of violence and destruction depicted.”

One of the most, if not the most, famous and influential graphic photograph shows 9-year-old girl Kim Phuc running down the road completely stripped of her burning clothes after South Vietnamese forces bombed her village with napalm (Media Watch 2016). Taken in 1972 by photographer Nick Ut for the Associated Press during the Vietnam War, this photograph splashed over front pages of magazine covers despite full front nudity and was the turning point in the War. This historical photograph proves the importance of publishing violent images. Ironically, it also justifies the argument above because without the ability to empathise with victims and evaluate the situation at hand, the US would not have received worldwide pressure and agree on a ceasefire.

For that reason, Ritchin provides a few recommendations when dealing with violent photographs for the media. Using photographs of families crying over graveyards as opposed to faces of fallen civilians covered in blood can address the subject matter without impacting the mentality of audiences (Angwin and Rose 2004). Another alternative is shifting the subject matter focus less on war but more on “…‘photography of peace’ … the beauties of ceasefires, and of healing, and of some of the horrors that were prevented from happening.” More happiness needs to be seen around the world rather than agony.
Despite the arguments in favour of limiting graphic imagery, it’s important to question why photojournalists and mainstream media outlets do publish violent images. To start with, Ritchin argues there is an obligation for photojournalists to be the messengers for the rest of the world, to turn the world’s attention to sights unknown. He says:

“The trauma of witnessing such devastation, and the powerlessness that may accompany it, can be more difficult to resolve if one is prevented from sharing what one has seen with others—the reason the photographer was there in the first place.”

Similar reasons explain why editors do not restrain from releasing violent photographs. Journalism is the fourth estate of society, which makes depictions of accurate truths and honest representations critical in bringing exposure to the intensity of the matter. Former News Corp editor Piers Akerman points out the need to set aside traditional media guidelines at times because there are just some photographs audiences have to witness (Media Watch 2016).

Social media has been changing the rules of acceptable pictures to be exposed online and still continues to till today. With less caution on the Internet, there is a ‘moral vacuum as the feeds go online’ and has ‘diluted somewhat the agenda-setting power o the mainstream media, according to Jonathan Zittrain, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School (Angwin and Rose, 2004). The article by Angwin and Rose, staff reporters of The Wall Street Journal, discusses the conflicting nature between broadcasting gruesome images across different media outlets. While mainstream media is capable of controlling what photographs go in and out of their filters, there is no control over what happens to these images when uploaded on the Internet. Despite this, Angwin and Rose take on a rather positive outlook towards social media’s influence on photojournalism. First, Web sites segregate information more effectively than traditional media such as newspapers or TV channels who see themselves as arbiters of taste. Second, social media’s algorithmic calculations such as hyperlinks allow audiences to see the photograph at their own discretion. On the Yahoo news Web site, photos are placed in a way that users need to actively search for the photographs with the most graphic content and each graphic footage and photos are marked with a warning when distributed. Lastly, social media’s proliferation of information sources attracts executives at traditional media companies to approach the sites. Social media’s immediacy with photos uploaded real-time allows a news story to be visually told without delay in present time.

In an era when anyone with a smartphone can upload a photo, how then is it possible to recognise the images that matter and legitimize what we see when more professional photojournalists are fired from prestigious editorial sources such as U.S. News, Newsweek, and Reuters? Rohde, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, the national-security investigations editor at Reuters and a former reporter for The New York Times, uses factual evidence from a report by Pew Research Centre stating more news photographers, artists and videographers have been laid off than any other type of journalist in 2012, decreasing in numbers by 43 percent. In his opinion, he has a pessimistic view towards the switch from mainstream media to new media. He argues:

“… technological change has irreversibly changed photojournalism. Professional photographers, they insist, will inevitably join the ranks of toll collectors, telephone switchboard operators, and other jobs rendered obsolete.”

This statement is an informal fallacy, a slippery slope/domino theory, because his article primarily focuses on the negative consequences, the corrupt nature of social media. Despite his pessimistic outlook of what the future holds for photographers, he remains certain that the work of photojournalists will dominate, for the vast majority of iconic photographs capturing historical moments are taken by professional photographers.

As for the photographs themselves, the plus side when photographs are uploaded online is an increasingly greater appreciation for photography, attracting new audiences over time. While graphic images might be difficult to “appreciate”, social media amplifies reach and recognition of such images to raise awareness to the issue depicted. Having said that, it is still uncertain whether these photographs are able to stand out for two reasons: one is the change in function of the nature of photographs in a general sense, from emphasising more on ourselves than others as the subject of the photograph and two is the torrent of images that makes it difficult for photographs to stick out longer than 24 hours (Rohde 2013).

The common theme found in the articles mentioned above is the inclusion of images that are all strikingly graphic. Surprisingly, even though Angwin and Rose (2004) claim that “technology permits us to say ‘Dear reader, you may not want to looks at this’”, only one of the four articles mentioned “WARNING: This story contains a graphic photograph” and it was the Website for a traditional medium, the CBC. Unlike Rohde, Nasser and Ritchin’s articles, the CBC article kept its images low-key with images not horrifically graphic but representative of horrific events. All of the photographs in the article are not staged, adding an element of candidness that makes viewers feel as if they are witnessing the scene. This happens to be the case for most of the graphic photographs in the other three articles— all candid and representational of the conflicts at the time but with less caution in showing graphic elements such as blood, dead bodies and people being hurt. The reason behind this is that the writers want to prove their point that violent photographs have impact on readers, whether it is in a good way or a bad way is for the reader to decide.

In conclusion, it is evident that photojournalism has a lasting impact in society, yet less and less companies are taking it seriously as more and more amateur photos circulating around the Internet receive more recognition. There continues to be a debate over the degree of violence allowed in photographs in different media outlets but for now, it is fair to say that whether audiences willingly see it or not, these graphic images will play a part in changing society.

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A Prank Call Gone Wrong

Prank calls have always been a staple for the Kyle & Jackie O Show, Charlie Darley from Mix95 FM and other radio programs alike to amuse listeners with the naivety of those pranked on the other side of the phone. However, is this act of amusement pure child’s play or catastrophical damage?

On December 4th, 2012, the operator at London’s private King Edward VII’s Hospital received a call from the Queen and Prince Charles and put them through to a nurse who reported the Duchess of Cambridge’s current condition as she was treated for hyperemesis gravidarum, a morning sickness. Little did they know, the voices came from presenters Mel Greig and Michael Christian of 2DayFM as part of their prank call. While the intention was light-hearted, consequences turned out detrimental when Jacintha Saldanha, the operator who answered the call took her life days after the call was broadcasted on air to the world. Since then, there has been debate over the ethical and legal issues broadcasting prank calls on air may concern. Two articles of interest– At whose expense? The dubious morality of prank calls by the Professor of Journalism at Bond University in Queensland, Mark Pearson, and A bit of fun that flouted the rules by Jonathan Holmes of ABC TV’s Media Watch – work to question the ethical and legal questions raised based on the consequences prank calls pose.

In the first article, Pearson takes on a more opinionative stance with common references to pronouns such as “I” and “we” (although it is important to take into account that a possible reason for this might be in conformity to a particular language style he uses for his blog, Journlaw, where the piece was originally published). He explicitly states the topic of interest in the second part of his title, “The dubious morality of prank calls”, and uses the first part of the title, “At whose expense?” to set a serious tone for the article. What more explicitly stated is Pearson’s claim found in the last paragraph:

“It is good that the 2Day FM management has been moved to suspend its prank calls. Now it’s time for the rest of the industry to do so as well – permanently…”

He also assumes that the audience is somewhat in agreement to his viewpoint. The common use of the pronoun “I” and “we” appeals to popular opinion and implicitly states the common sense that should be imbedded in our minds on the unacceptable act of making prank calls as exemplified by the following statement:

“The laws and ethics of the matter are quite clear.”

The word “clear” almost implies that he is incredulous of anyone not aware of the “laws and ethics of the matter”, as he assumes it is common knowledge. Pearson’s opinion is reflected in his choice of diction, writing that the 2DayFM’s suspension of prank calls is needed because it sets an example radio stations need to follow. Following his claim that radio stations should suspend prank calls permanently, Pearson justifies it using several techniques.

A large number of his justifications appeal to analogy to create a relatable scenario to readers, many of whom have not been a victim of radio prank calls. First, he implies that prank calls are no better than racist jokes and workplace bullying in the following statement:

“I’ve heard many arguments in their favour in recent days, including that they are a time-worn practice in commercial radio, that they are just a bit of fun, that good sports will laugh them off, that they are part of an Australian tradition of laconic humour. Well, to be frank, so were racist jokes and workplace bullying pranks last century, and neither are acceptable in the modern era.”

It proves a point that similar to racist jokes and workplace bullying, prank calls can end up hurting people emotionally and make them vulnerable. He adds on to his analogy by writing:

“Just a few decades ago all this might have been written off as good fun – just like the workplace tricks colleagues would play on their apprentices or the racist and misogynist jokes you could read in the newspaper or watch on television. But society has moved on.”

Analogies are not enough to support Pearson’s claim so he takes an argumentative stance by appealing to factual evidence in the following paragraph:

“According to Sane Australia about 20% of adults experience a mental disorder in any year – typically anxiety or depression. When a radio station conducts a prank call, they are never absolutely sure about the mental and emotional state of the person they are calling. Sooner or later that call is going to reach a person at a particularly vulnerable moment of his or her life – a moment when they are low on self esteem, high on anxiety or perhaps under the influence of a substance, prescribed or otherwise… They might well feel the world is set against them.”

Pearson recommends rather than continue prank calling strangers that radio hosts have no knowledge of their psychological background, society should provide expert counseling and offer support rather than making them feel like a “laughing stock of society”. On another note, one can argue that there seems to be a hasty generalisation, one that concludes prank calls will send a person down a dark path. The operator who received that prank call took her life but not only has there been no explanation for her intentions, Pearson has not compared the situation to one that happened before, if there even was one. It is important to remember however that he did state a counterargument to a justification that appealed to ethics and facts:

“The NSW Surveillance Devices Act prohibits the broadcast of recorded private conversations without the permission of the participants. The Commercial Radio Code of Practice does likewise at section 6.”

The second article by Holmes takes an opposite approach incorporating a two-sided view on the situation. Holmes aims to convince an audience, such as Pearson’s audience who are against prank calling on air, that the situation has been sensationalised yet he reasons an explanation and develops an understanding as to the possible seriousness of prank calling in general. His first claim is that there is no harm in making prank calls for broadcasting stations and the act is all of joking matter. With the case of 2DayFM’s royal prank call, Holmes says:

“… I was one of those who thought it was pretty harmless, and pretty funny”.

He then justifies by appealing to popular opinion by stating:

“Yet the call, to many people, was funny partly because it contained no real malice.”

He argues that there was already public knowledge in the Duchess of Cambridge’s condition, that she was suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum. What audiences learn from the nurse could also be learned by searching the words “hyperemesis gravidarum” in Google. An interesting fact Holmes points out that is often left unclear in other articles is that Ms. Saldanha was the operator who put the call through yet newspapers use the vague term “answered” to convince readers of the important role she played as a “nurse” in this incident. He also emphasises that no clear evidence from the autopsy or other forms of proof is available to reach a conclusion about the link between the suicide and the prank call. This stops readers to question if Ms. Saldanha’s suicide intention was really attributed to the prank call or something else.

Holmes’s second claim does not counter his first claim but instead states that while the specific situation at hand is of no real malice, the act of prank calling in broadcasting is problematic. He claims that broadcasting stations must “govern their own behaviour” but if otherwise, they become “accountable for the consequences, however difficult they might have been to foresee”. By reminding readers that the consequences are of no joking matter, the underlying warrant is that, rules must be abided to avoid causing a detrimental aftermath.

The justifications present dealing with authority has to do with laws on prank calling in broadcast. Holmes goes on to directly quote the applicable laws of the incident:

“Clause 8.15 of the British regulator Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code specifically deals with prank calls— what it calls ‘wind up calls’ – which are recorded without the initial knowledge of participants…

“The equivalent clause of the Australian Commercial Radio Codes of Practice is much less wide-ranging. The voice of an ‘identifiable person’ that has been recorded without the person’s knowledge, Code 6.1( b) says, cannot be broadcast unless:

..that person has subsequently, but prior to the broadcast, expressed consent to the broadcast of the words.’

“… Code 2.3 (d) of the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice states that a licensee must ensure that it…

‘… does not use material relating to a person’s personal or private affairs, or which invades an individual’s privacy, unless there is a public interest in broadcasting such information.’

“… Then there’s the Surveillance Devices Act. In New South Wales, and most other states, it’s illegal to record someone in a situation that they would expect to be private – and that emphatically includes telephone calls – and then broadcast the result without their consent.”

Clause 8.15 of the British regulator Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, Code 6.1 (b) and Code 2.3 (d) of the Australian Commercial Radio Codes of Practice, and the Surveillances Devices Act all work together as justifications appealing to authority because laws govern societal behaviour and are therefore classified not as justifications that appeal to facts. Facts are not questioned; they are assumed to be true. The wording of these laws and codes of conduct are questioned and debated. In fact, the lawyers of Southern Cross Austereo representing 2DayFM when faced head to head in court with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) argued that the nurse and receptionist were not named in the prank call and are not considered ‘identifiable persons’ under Code 6.1 (b) of the Australian Commercial Radio Codes of Practice and the New South Wales Surveillance Devices Act. Holmes claims that Australian audiences would have no knowledge of their names if it weren’t for British publications who revealed them. He takes it even further by holding the Daily Mail responsible for Ms. Saldanha’s suicide since they took their outrage on the hospital’s unacceptable actions, which to Holmes’s judgment is what “poor Ms. Saldanha would have been reading and hearing in the time before her death.”

As seen, there is a poverty of the different appeals in Holmes’s justifications because the article is an opinion piece and Holmes more often than not states his own analysis on the situation. Only every paragraph or so does he incorporate a few justifications to legitimize any arguments made.

On the contrary, Pearson and Holmes both aim to portray journalistic representations and arguments about crime and punishment. The two writers came to a conclusion that the royal prank call achieved a whistle-blower status despite their different viewpoints on the outcome of the issue. Their articles presented no ad hominem argument that puts the blame on presenters Greig and Christian for the suicide of Ms. Saldanha because they were “just doing their job” (Pearson 2012). While readers might find the two articles polar in opinion, the underlying debate of each article is the same— whether the laws and ethics have been broken. Pearson acknowledges the debate on whether the conversations classify as “private” and whether the parties are considered “identifiable” but personally stands against such act of bullying. He writes:

“We are at a pivotal moment in media history and it is time for the industry to build the public’s trust, not to exploit it for a cheap laugh at someone’s expense.”

As for Holmes, his ability to reason that at one hand, the situation was just a playful act of no harm but on the other hand, it challenged legal and ethical matters that are part of the issue at large.

After lengthy legal battles, the ACMA ensured 2Day FM broadcasted a three-hour special program to promote media ethics and raise public awareness of the signs and risks of bullying, depression and anxiety. Ever since Greig and Christian were suspended from the show, presenters, production and management personnel were required to attend a training program to actively engage with their ethical and legal obligations. Finally, ACMA imposed an additional three-year license condition involving Clause 6.1 of the Commercial Radio Codes of Practice and Guidelines on 2Day FM which could not be contested. The royal prank call from 2DayFM made present day broadcasters understand the similarity of impact to mental health of prank calls to media bullying, raising caution in the wellbeing of listeners.