Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Coming Soon: The Ethics of War Videojournalism

We salute editor Dirck Halstead and the staff of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, on the occasion of its 12th anniversary -- that's 143 issues of high-quality reporting and commentary on photojournalism, a remarkable accomplishment.

As with other recent installments, the Sept. '09 issue includes another elegy to the commercially beleagured industry, and yet another remedy for rescuing it: How to Start to Save Photojournalism. "Is there a way to turn this situation around?" it asks. "In our view, there is only one way: Philanthropists must come to the rescue."

While we're not sure we agree that's the only way, we're always glad that the publication adds more voices, and solutions, to the mix.

What especially caught our attention in this issue was the number of thoughtful pieces devoted to AP photojournalist Julie Jacobson's controversial photo of a dying soldier in Afghanistan. (See her narrated audio-slideshow, Death of a Marine, on KobreGuide):

As it happens, Jacobson is a 2006 alum of Halstead's pioneering Platypus Workshops, that train still photographers to embrace multimedia and videojournalism. This issue carries her journal entries while she was embedded with the Marines in Afghanistan, a must read.

Columnist Beverly Spicer contributes a comprehensive report on the brouhaha surrounding the decision to publish the disturbing photo, and ponders:

As Jacobson says in her notes, "It is necessary to be bothered from time to time. It is too easy to sit at Starbucks far away across the sea and read about the casualty and then move on without much of another thought about it. It is not as easy to see an image of that casualty and NOT think about it."

With the current crisis in journalism, most U.S. news organizations have greatly reduced their conflict coverage out of economic necessity, and many are consolidating with others for information gathering.

How will the same debate and struggles evolve in the future? As forms of media and access to information shift and change, as print media collapses and professional journalism is threatened, how will the equation change between the press's efforts to release information and countervailing efforts to control it?
In their ethics column, Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus conclude:

The Associated Press made the correct decision in not caving to the pressure. Critics will argue that the photo is tasteless and adds no value to the story. Not so. If everyone knew what the actual horror of war looked like, the image would not shock or appall.

For those who don't want to think about what the picture genuinely represents, the criticism affords a convenient excuse to look hard the other way. As a nation, this conflict belongs to all of us, not only to the military or the government. The image of the injured Marine forces us, as citizens, to ask ourselves what we are going to do about our war.

Those discussions are as urgent as they are necessary. They must be responsible, thoughtful and honest. We owe that much to Cpl. Bernard and his parents, and all of the soldiers who have been and will be sent to the Middle East.

It is common decency.
As we survey developments in the evolving sphere of ethics pertaining to moving images with audio, we have to ask:

What's going to happen when a videojournalist captures a soldier dying -- which will be even much more graphic and "real" than Jacobson's still image that shocked and upset so many?

What will happen when we are able to not just see a bloody soldier, but are able to watch one bleed? When we will be able to hear a soldier's agony, as he suffers and cries for help?

We've all seen and heard this in movie theaters -- how long before we see the real thing on newspaper Websites?

Will videojournalists shoot it? Will editors allow it? Will the public accept it?

Is it the right thing to do?

Who will have to make those hard decisions, and what criteria will they use? And what impact will those powerful video stories have on all of us?

No comments: