Alicia Wagner Calzada describes the tricky world of photojournalism ethics and law

According to Alicia Wagner Calzada, President Emeritus of the National Press Photographers Association, the way journalists and news outlets conduct their business is the basis of the public’s trust in them.

“Ethics is the single most important thing that news organizations have,” Calzada said in her Thursday morning Mass Communication Week presentation.

The talk gave an overview of the most common trouble areas photographers encounter when on the job. Those include behavior while setting up photo opportunities, conduct on assignment, editing guidelines, invasion of privacy and copyright issues.

“Ethics and law are kind of similar in that they sort of rely on the same moral principles,” Calzada said. “But there are a lot of gray areas.

Questionable situations that fall in these so called gray areas are the actions that most often go to court because there is no clear answer as to what is right and wrong. This is the reason that understanding the legal and ethical limits at all times is a must.

However, practicing sound ethics isn’t just a way for journalists to stay out of trouble, according to Calzada. It is also the best was to preserve the public’s trust in the news.

“The worst thing that happens to a photographer is they get an assignment to go photograph somebody doing something. They get there, and the person says, ‘what do you want me to do?'” Calzada said. “As a journalist, you want them to do what they are normally doing. … Setups are not OK.”

The best thing to do is to find out when the subject is doing whatever the news is interested in, and to shoot photos then. Meeting the subject to take photos whenever they are free does not produce truthful images. From that moment on, when the subject sees images in newspapers or magazines, they will always have the suspicion that the photos are setups. This erodes the public’s trust, the most important asset of the news.

Ethics violations in photo editing also have a large impact on news credibility. When Brian Walski combined two photos to create a more interesting composition during the 2003 invasion of Iraq the LA Times had a serious public relations battle to ensure it didn’t lose the public trust.

“I think what happens to photographers is they start doing a little bit of manipulation. Then they start doing a little more and they get away with it. And everyone starts telling them what a great picture it is. I think it is easier than you would think to get caught up in a pattern of manipulation like this,” Calzada said.

According to Calzada, photojournalists must live up to a high standard because ethics are “what sets us apart from art and advertising.”

The laws pertaining to photojournalism are, for the most part, easy to understand. The ethical issues journalists face are the truly questionable areas. If a situation feels fishy at all, it is best to steer clear. Any publicly known ethical violations can destroy confidence in the media, and that trust is really the only thing that keeps the news alive.

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