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Photojournalism Ethics

Beginner photojournalists need to learn professional ethics.

With the advent of photo editing software and the sensationalistic style of reporting, photojournalism ethics can be hard to discern for someone new to the field. Yet this topic is one of utmost importance, as your credibility as a photojournalist is on the line when you submit a photo as a truthful image of newsworthy events.

NPPA Code of Ethics

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Code of Ethics offers nine ethical standards to member journalists. The basic premises of the NPPA's nine standards are:

  1. Accurately represent subjects
  2. Do not be manipulated by staged photos
  3. Avoid bias and stereotyping in work; provide complete information and context
  4. Show consideration for subjects
  5. Avoid influencing the actions of the photographic subject
  6. Editing should not give the wrong impression of the subjects in the photograph
  7. Do not compensate persons involved in photographs or in getting a photograph
  8. Do not accept gifts or other favors from those involved in a photo
  9. Do not purposely interfere with the work of other journalists

These guidelines provide a framework for not only members of the NPPA, but for other photojournalists as well. In addition to the nine standards, a preamble and seven ideals are also outlined in the code, which further explain the NPPA's expectations regarding ethical photojournalistic reporting.

Situations in Photojournalism Ethics

Though the list of ethics from the NPPA listed above may seem clear-cut, it can become difficult to decide where to draw the line. Every situation is different, and the answer may not be as obvious as it may seem.

Each newspaper, news group or press association you may belong to as a photographer may have its own rules and regulations regarding ethics in photojournalism. If you want to become a photojournalist, it is important to understand how ethics play in your role in reporting the news.

Photo Editing

The point at which editing becomes an ethics violation is a fine line. For instance, the NPPA takes both an artistic edit and a montage edit to task in 2006. In one instance, the photograph's colors were altered to create a more stunning visual. In the other, two photographs were fused together to create a photo that never really took place. Although the second incident is clearly an ethical violation, the first is not quite as clear, because it was color manipulation. Yet both are breaches of ethics, because they alter the way the events actually looked.Similarly, the altered photograph of Iowan septuplet mom Bobbi McCaughey that appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1997 drew much criticism for appearing to have straightened her teeth. Photojournalists need to take care that when they edit photographs, they do it for technical issues and not for the purpose of altering the actual image.

Photo Context

Explaining the context of the photograph is just as important as taking an accurate photo and presenting it with as few edits as possible. Celebrity gossip magazines and paparazzi are frequently accused of manipulating context of photographs. Hypothetically, a photographer could capture two stars standing near each other, appearing to smile at one another. However, the context of the photo may be that each celebrity is smiling at someone who is off camera. Presentation of the photo as "Celebrity X and Celebrity Y greet each other" would be misrepresenting the context of the photograph, and therefore be considered an ethical violation.

Privacy and Violence in Photographs

Figuring out where to draw the line when it comes to the privacy of the public, especially in violent or emotional situations, is often difficult for photojournalists. Camping outside a private citizen's home just to get a shot of a returning disabled veteran from war is often considered a privacy intrusion, whereas photographing the solider returning home at a public celebration is not. Similarly, shooting ambulances racing to the scene of an accident, or passenger-free wreckage is usually considered necessary for a story. However, images of injured victims should be carefully reviewed before publication.

Avoid Ethics Violations

Photographic tampering and ethical violations have been around almost as long as the camera itself. The history of photojournalism includes many examples of ethical breaches. Learn about famous digitally altered photos at Photo Tampering Throughout History. Photos discussed include the famous President Lincoln photo, a photograph of Adolf Hitler and that of a National Geographic cover featuring Egyptian pyramids, among others.

The best way to avoid an ethics violation is to uphold truth in photojournalism. If you want to manipulate image colors or a subject's look, make sure the caption indicates that the image is a "photo illustration" or "artistic interpretation." Similarly, label stock images as such and make sure you note whether a photo was staged.

Taking a photojournalism ethics class is another excellent way to avoid breaching ethics. If you ever have a question regarding a photo you want to use, bring it to the attention of your editor, supervisor or boss.

A good rule to follow when it comes to truth in photojournalism is one of several espoused in the Society for Professional Journalist's Code of Ethics: Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations. By following this rule and those of the NPPA, photojournalists should be able to avoid most ethics violations.


Photojournalism ethics is a topic that should stay in the forefront of every photographer's mind when he or she snaps a photo and presents it as the truth.

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Photojournalism Ethics