Ethical dilemmas: Should pictures like this be published by newspapers?

Eddie car pic.jpg
Thanks to the excellent Eddie Mitchell for his permission to use this picture of an incident which caused quite the stir at the weekend

A social media debate about imagery depicting this incident over the weekend took me by complete surprise.

The incident, in which a car collided with a telegraph pole in a residential road, made the news, including on one of our websites. The story began to unfold well before it hit the headlines, though.

From what I gather, a resident innocently posted a similar picture on a community Facebook page shortly after it happened, warning those who might be in the area.

After considerable debate the photo was removed, with some questioning the need for the imagery.

The recurring theme was the complaint that the picture was ‘intrusive’ and failed to show ‘respect’ for the driver involved. One comment I saw even went so far as to suggest any pictures of such scenes, generally, were too intrusive. Point blank.

Covering stories like this certainly must be done responsibly. There are limits – but I cannot accept the argument that a blanket image blackout is justified.


Car collision
The picture in print

In public

Ignoring the resident’s post for now, let’s focus on our news coverage.

As a starting point, major incidents are almost always viewable in the public domain. From collisions like this, to fires and crime scenes, anyone walking past can see it.

Ethics aside, it is accepted that if something or someone is in public, anyone can take a picture of it.

If I walk down the high street tomorrow, there is nothing to stop you taking a picture of me.

As this is the accepted legal position, from the outset any public incident must surely start as fair game.

What about privacy?

It is not quite as simple as that. There are boundaries.

Most publications in the UK sign up to a regulator. For our papers, and the majority of others, ours is IPSO, or the Independent Press Standards Organisation to give it its full and fancy title.

IPSO has a code of practice and one of the key bits covers ‘privacy’. In short, it sets out that everyone is entitled to privacy in regards to their private life – including things like their health matters.

What IPSO has to say about privacy. The red star denotes a clause which can be overriden by ‘public interest’

It also states ‘individuals’ cannot be photographed without their consent in private or public where there is a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’. There isn’t a handy crib sheet of scenarios but from countless cases, we know the sort of situations where this applies.

If you’re in a car crash and you’re receiving medical treatment at the roadside, it would normally be off-limits to photograph you. You would have a strong claim that, despite being in public, you have that ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’.

If you are having a meal in a restaurant, you may also expect privacy. There was a classic case where someone was photographed in the background of an unrelated press snap, only for their wife to find out they were entertaining another lady. It was later ruled the cheating couple were entitled to privacy.

Having said all that, if the press can demonstrate that its work is in the ‘public interest’, it can override all of the above. It is a very strong test, though, and the ‘public interest’ is different to being something the public would be interested in!


How do you decide if it’s ok to publish?

All of this shows how tricky an editor’s job can be every day. Any picture like the one at the top of this post needs careful consideration.

It is not always a clear-cut decision, with no right answer. An ethical choice is based on an opinion. Some cases are easier than others.

I was not on duty when this incident happened but there are several things which make me confident the decision to publish the image was entirely correct.

There is no-one in the car, nor is there anyone receiving treatment in shot who could be identified. The only people in the picture are members of the public who have, presumably, done the same thing as the photographer and gathered to see what happened. They can claim no ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’.

We usually blur out car registration plates, particularly when people are seriously injured or killed. We do this as if the worst happens, family members shouldn’t learn that their loved ones have been involved by reading our coverage. Here, no plates are fully visible – but even so, our responsible freelancer has blurred the edge of it out to be safe.

The sum total of this picture is purely an accurate depiction of what anybody, passing the incident in the public domain, can see. Add in the fact that a good two-and-a-half hours had elapsed and pictures had already circulated on social media, and the case is even clearer, in my opinion.

An odd one to debate?

Not every incident is straightforward. There is certainly a serious ethical debate to be had about images depicting major news items. Umpteen fatal collisions spring to mind, while who can forget the tragedy of the Shoreham Airshow crash?

But for all the photos to trigger such a discussion, it seemed quite bizarre that this one generated so much concern.

Anyone involved in a car accident will know that they are traumatic incidents as standard. Fortunately, as far as we know, the driver involved was ok.

There was nothing about this picture which raised any alarm bells, or ethical concerns. I can think of no explanation as to why this one received widespread attention and others did not.

It’s why it led me to wonder whether social media can sometimes generate an over-reaction, which quickly snowballs as soon as one person suggests something is out of place. I also wonder whether it accurately depicts the wider view. A couple of dozen people on a Facebook conversation quickly outnumbers the silent majority.

Imagine a blog about Albie – without ever seeing what Albie looked like

Why not report the news, without the picture?

Research shows people respond more to pictures than the printed word. It’s why I’ve included several pictures throughout this piece, split by headings. If I didn’t, no-one would stand a chance of getting to the end. They probably don’t anyway!

Pictures are important on our websites for various technical reasons. For example, Facebook posts tend to appear more prominently in followers’ feeds with a video or picture.

Aside from the technical reasons, we have privacy and ethical codes for a reason. We have these debates to establish whether it is fair and just to publish the image. If we think the image meets the tests, why wouldn’t we use it? To go through all the formalities and just say ‘no’ would defeat the object of talking through it.

In full-on journalist mode

Are you just a heartless journalist?

The other half of this blog is about being a Dad. I’ve yet to receive any complaints that I’m a heartless Dad! Many times I’ve been accused of being a heartless hack – but I don’t have a split personality.

The reporters whose stories I edit are hard-working, thoughtful people. Their journalism has made a difference and I recall many recent examples where people have experienced unspeakable traumas, only to thank us for our sensitive journalism.

After I came home and took off my heartless journalist suit

I understand those affected by these major incidents go through incredible discomfort and they may understandably feel the press shouldn’t report on what they are going through.

I know the media won’t always get things right. Historically, the focus on ethics was not as important as it is today.

Now, all trainees study ethics and at our paper, the IPSO code is drilled into them as strongly as the laws which we rely on to stop us being sued.

My papers are owned by a large publisher called Johnston Press. All of our journalists have recently done a big piece of training on ‘tone’, which is all about how we can report sensitively, while still doing our duty. We think about how we can turn a negative angle into more of a positive to champion our communities.

But our freedoms must never be overriden by unnecessary restrictions.

Pictures are important – just look at history

Some of the most iconic photojournalism of our time pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable. It has recorded incredibly important moments.

What about ‘Napalm Girl’? How about some of the images we can all recall of poor victims from the London bombings, the harrowing images of 9/11 or ‘Tank Man’?

These are all extreme examples and have far more significance than a car in Lancing – but it shows that pushing the boundaries can be really important when considered in a wider context. It’s why there could never be a blanket ban on images which might be uncomfortable for some.

social media
There’s upsides to social media – it helps you keep in touch with me, for example!

A final thought – does social media need its own code of ethics?

One thing really struck me about the photo debate.

While many were quick to criticise the resident for posting a picture – other ‘wrongs’ appeared to pass by ignored.

Speculation about what had led to the collision. Fine. Opinions passed about the standard of driving. Unchallenged.

This is often the case on social media.

A social media society can be one where someone charged with a crime is labelled as ‘guilty’ before trial. Comments which a newspaper would never print for fear of contempt, or libel, pass by all the time without recourse. Councils are found at fault for things they have no control over. Statements are paraded as fact with no sign of verification. Rumours spread like wildfire.

Social media is also wonderful. It pulls communities together like never before and has so many advantages in creating debates and helping journalists engage with readers like never before.

I wonder whether it is this background which creates such a strong sense of right and wrong – and not necessarily a fair, reasoned and informed view.






One Comment Add yours

  1. Bea says:

    Although I’m not very comfortable making public comments I really want to say that I am moved by your thought provoking and intelligent discussion of this issue; I am also hugely impressed that you are a ‘proper’ journalist using shorthand and not a blasted screen to record your encounters, more power to your elbow and thank you for your clear thinking reportage.


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