Image ethics has never before been the subject of so much media criticism as at the present time. The use of violent images is questioned. Photographers that hound celebrities beyond propriety are criticized. Pictures that are manipulated and present misleading views damage the media’s credibility. Images that perpetuate negative stereotypes of individuals from various multicultural groups are noticed. Pictures that blur the distinction between advertising and journalism undercut journalism’s legitimacy. Visual messages can have tremendous emotional impact upon viewers. With proper contextualization, they can serve to inform and educate, as well as entertain and persuade. But used thoughtlessly or superficially, images can also offend, shock, mislead, stereotype, and confuse.
The apparent veracity of pictures, the sense in which they seem to simply reflect reality, often obscures the ethical choices involved in their creation. Yet the fact that images routinely employ visual metaphors means that media production is always subject to ethical considerations (Messaris 1996). Visual messages make rhetorical claims about the world, whether intentional or not, as part of journalism, advertising, and entertainment, and other fields. Image ethics attempts to foster accountability for visual messages.
When a violent picture of a dead victim of a tragic event is presented to the public in either the print or screen media, many are repulsed and offended. Nevertheless, violence and tragedy are staples of the media. Published, posted, or broadcast images are expected as part of a media system that professes to cover and reflect the world we inhabit. Visual journalists often defend such images as a way to warn others of the dangers of modern living – for instance, to urge drivers to wear seat belts. Yet despite such explanations, sensational images of violence and victims are shown as much for economic as utilitarian reasons. Ethical considerations require active consideration of, and debate over, the purposes of images in media presentations and what motivates their use.
An oft-debated area of image ethics involves determining appropriate divisions between public and private life. Ordinary citizens or celebrities who are suddenly thrust in front of the unblinking lens of a camera almost always voice privacy concerns. Since the nineteenth century photography has been employed in police and government surveillance, as well as by the tabloid press to expose the private lives of public figures. In some nations private citizens have more strictly enforced rights to privacy than celebrities or political figures, but this is not so in other countries. France explicitly protects privacy in its constitution, and the EU directive 95/46/EC clearly regulates the collection and processing of personal data on individuals, but in the US the limits of privacy continue to be debated in the courts. Inconsistent concepts of personal privacy from culture to culture are but one example of the complicated and often relative nature of ethical determinations and the difficulty of establishing unemotional, objective, and reasoned journalism principles.
Another prominent area of ethical debate involves stereotypical or offensive portrayals of social or cultural groups, whether distinguished by ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual preference, physical characteristics, age, class, or occupation. The concern for stereotyping relates to images in entertainment and advertising as much as journalism. The globalization of communication networks and media conglomerates has increased cultural friction over the propriety of public imagery. Examples of recent ethical controversies in this regard include the case of the Danish editorial cartoons caricaturing Muslims and the prophet Muhammad. In this case, ethical considerations pitted principles of religious and ethnic respect against ideals of freedom of expression.
In other cases, the popular misunderstanding that photographic media simply record the way things are often complicates image ethics. For example, US magazines and newspapers publish few photographs of African-Americans, but when they do, those shown are disproportionately depicted as athletes, entertainers, or people charged with crimes (Lester 1994). Because published pictures are inevitably a small selection of all available images, every pictorial selection by a photographer and an editor involves a potential stereotype with an ethical dilemma.
Advertising relies as much as journalism on the credibility of visual messages to persuade viewers of the legitimacy of its claims. Entertainment utilizes the realism of visual media to construct convincing simulated worlds from its stories. With names such as “advertorials” and “infomercials,” advertisers mimic the production cues of print and screen journalists to present appeals as information. In advertising of all types, commercial and political, images are often intentionally constructed to be misleading. Through art direction, staging, and photo manipulation, they easily and purposefully lead readers or viewers to draw false or irrelevant inferences and connotations. When public relations directors or news editors use flashy covers and front-page layouts as advertisements for the news, they easily fall into the same practices. The inherently ambiguous nature of pictures in such mass media contexts make image ethics a daily concern.
Digital technology has added yet another layer of complexity to the ethical use of visual messages. Image manipulation did not begin with computer technology, but digitalization has greatly expanded the speed and power with which alterations can be made. Digital manipulations are relatively easy to accomplish, are hard to detect, and can change the original image so that verification of authenticity becomes impossible. Only a serious commitment to ethical standards prevents the wholesale fabrication of pictures. Few would argue that images used in journalism contexts should have the same low level of credibility as those pictures used in advertising. However, without close attention to image ethics, such a situation may become the norm.
- Gross, L. P., Katz, J. S., & Ruby, J. (eds.) (1991). Image ethics: The moral rights of subjects in photographs, film, and television. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Gross, L. P., Katz, J. S., & Ruby, J. (eds.) (2003). Image ethics in the digital age. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Lester, P. M. (1994). African-American photo coverage in four U.S. newspapers, 1937–1990. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 71, 380 –394.
- Lester, P. M., with Ross, S. (eds.) (2003). Images that injure: Pictorial stereotypes in the media, 2nd edn. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Messaris, P. (1996). Visual persuasion: The role of images in advertising. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Patterson, P., & Wilkins, L. (2008). Media ethics: Issues and cases, 6th edn. Boston: McGraw-Hill.