Photojournalists call for balance, compassion in news coverage

Monday, March 5, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Photojournalists must balance the rights of the press, the rights of photography subjects and the right of the public to know, photojournalists said in a Feb 26 panel discussion on photography and the First Amendment.

Sponsored by Cheekwood Art Museum and The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, the discussion was presented in connection with a new Cheekwood exhibit of the work of early photojournalist Usher Fellig, better known as New York tabloid journalist Weegee. Organized by the International Center for Photography, Weegee’s World: Life, Death, and Human Drama will show at the museum through April 22.

The panel discussion, “Photos and the First Amendment: the right to decide what images are news vs. what’s ‘right’ to show,” featured moderator John Seigenthaler, founding editorial director of USA TODAY and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, asking questions of three panelists:

  • Leslie Brown, assistant curator of education at Cheekwood Museum of Art.
  • Joe Gregory, chief photographer at WKRN-Channel 2 News in Nashville.
  • Clarence Williams, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer at the Los Angeles Times.

All three panelists emphasized the fact that photojournalists must balance the right of the press to cover news with the right of the subjects being photographed and as well as with the right of the public to see important news stories.

“You must go into [taking a photograph] with a true since of respect for those photographed,” said Williams. “That way you get more intimate photographs and you are able to leave a better taste in the subjects mouth when it comes to the media.”

Said Gregory, “Every photographer must have his standards,” and added that he tries to treat each of his subjects with the same respect he would give to a member of his family.

Seigenthaler asked the panelists where journalists should draw the line between newsworthy photography and what the public might deem offensive, or if in fact a line could be drawn between the two.

“It is not a matter of a straight line,” said Williams. “It moves. We all have a certain context and what is offensive in Nashville might not be offensive in New York City.”

Williams also said hard distinctions could not be made and that a photojournalist should be compassionate while covering an emotional subject.

“I’ll take the picture, but then I hug,” said Williams.

Seigenthaler also asked about new legislative measures introduced since Princess Diana’s death, that are primarily aimed at paparazzi but might potentially limit mainstream journalists’ access to subjects. Gregory and Williams agreed that the problem was equally that of overzealous journalists and a star-crazed public.

“Diana’s death gave people someone to lash out at,” Gregory said, referring to photographers.

Williams said, “But there is a public who is hungry for these pictures. There is a market for these pictures. It’s a very twisted issue. But it’s important that the people who vote on this understand that they are playing a very important part in what’s going on.”

The panelists agreed that photographers must report the news, but that the line between what is news and what may be too graphic to be shown is often blurred.

“I thought it was an image that needed to be seen,” said Gregory, describing his station’s decision to show news footage of an American soldier being dragged through the streets in Somalia. Gregory noted that the station decided to pull the segment after viewer complaints. However, he maintained the importance of the piece.

“That image changed people’s minds about our involvement in Somalia,” Gregory said.

“Some things are just gross,” said Williams, who said that people need to be able to take something away from the image.

Leslie Brown also noted that there exists a point of saturation with graphic photos.

“What if we’re showing too many?” said Brown, noting a phenomenon called “compassion fatigue,” which desensitizes the viewer to the graphic image he or she sees.

All the panelists said the work of photojournalists such as Weegee had left indelible impressions on society and noted the contributions made by these artists, while cautioning against misuse of the medium. Each panelist also noted that the primary responsibility for editing photography rests with the individual photographer and news editors, who must make ethical decisions about what to show.

“It is our job to let people know what art is going on. It is the person’s job to decide whether or not it’s right for them,” said Brown.

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