When does the journalist put down his pen and notebook and get involved in a story? When does a photojournalist put down his camera to do what he thinks is right?
Those questions are not just for ethicists to answer. Many of us who collect the news and memorialize it on film (or, more recently, digitally) have to answer them more often than you might think.
For example, responding to the crash of flight 587 in Belle Harbor in November of 2001, I came upon Jim Bulloch and his wife trying to put out a burning jet engine that had fallen into his Beach 129 Street gas station, using only a garden hose.
I began to take pictures of the scene when a man who was pulling a hose from another location to help out yelled at me to "drop the camera and help out."
Was my job at that point to help put the fire out or to document the danger and the drama in the scene for the readers of that week’s Wave?
In that case, I took the pictures because it seemed that nobody’s life was on the line and I was not really needed to help out.
I continued on to take more than a hundred pictures that day, many of which appeared in the paper and many of which appeared on television and in papers around the nation.
Let’s take a hypothetical, and see how it might have been different.
Suppose, when I came to the gas station, Bulloch was trapped inside by the burning engine. In that case, what should I have done? Should I have dropped my camera and ran to help him escape, or should I have waited, recording the scene when emergency workers arrived?
To me, the answer to that is simple. I would have dropped my camera (gently, of course) and gone to help. In that case, being the reporter-photographer would have become of secondary importance.
Just this week, the Poynter Institute (a training institute for journalists) posited a problem in its ethics newsletter.
Boston Herald reporter Jules Crittenden was imbedded with our Marines fighting in Iraq.
"It was here that I went over to the dark side," Crittenden wrote in his paper. "I spotted the silhouettes of several Iraqi soldiers looking at us from the shadows 20 feet to our left. I shouted, ‘there’s three of the (expletive) right there’."
The marines quickly responded and killed the three men.
"Some in our profession might think as a reporter and non-combatant, I was there only to observe. Now that I have assisted in the deaths of three human beings in the war I was sent to cover, I’m sure that there are some people who will question my ethics, my objectivity," he writes. "I’ll keep the argument short. Screw them, they weren’t there. But, they are welcome to join me next time if they care to test their professionalism."
Another example of the dilemma.
Two young boys fall through the ice. Rescuers from the local fire department go out onto the ice to pull the boys out. A photographer from a local paper, riding with the fire department that day, takes exclusive pictures of a firefighter, a dying child on his chest, being pulled from the water. The boy is still alive when the picture is taken, but dies later at the hospital. The picture runs big on the front page as an example of the tragedy, as a lesson to others who would go out on thin ice, as a symbol of the heroism of the firefighters who risked their lives to save the boys.
There were many complaints to the paper about running the picture of the dead child. Those readers argued that a newspaper should never run a picture of a dead person, particularly a child, because it would offen the family and the community to do so.
Should the paper have run the picture? I believe that it told the story so well (far better than words could describe the scene) that it needed to be published. Others would disagree.
We have very much the same reaction when we ran an inside story about a local woman who had committed suicide. We always receive complaints when we write about suicides. Many do not believe that they are news, believing instead that they are a personal tragedy that should not be told publicly. Obviously, I do not agree. I believe that the community’s interest in the story (and the police activity in the area for hours that day) dictated that it be told what was going on.
Several years ago, I was at a fire in Bayswater in which four people, including a number of young children, were killed when they could not get to the inside key on their front door. Their bodies were piled inside the door and I was there when the door opened and their bodies piled out onto the porch.
I did not take the picture, because I would never use it, although it told the story of the tragedy of the fire better than anything else. It was not fit for public consumption. That was my decision, an ethical one, I hope. I did shoot a picture of the bodies on the lawn, covered with a tarp with just one small hand showing. I decided not to use that picture either.
Instead, we used a picture of the children’s father, who came the next morning, with his hands outstretched in anguish. We got hit for using that picture as well. A Newsday reporter, standing right next to me, took the same picture. It won a Pulitzer Prize in photojournalism for the Newsday photographer.
There is little chance that a Wave reporter will ever become embedded with a military unit fighting a war unless that war is in Rockaway.
That does not mean, however, that we do have to make the same sort of ethical decisions each week.
The bottom line is, we will never please everybody with either our choice of stories or our choice of photographs.
That does not mean that we will not keep on doing just as we have been doing.
We will often delight some of you. We will just as often anger some of you.
That is no different than the dailies, no different than the television networks and cable news.
What is ethical is in the eye of the beholder and is constantly changing as the world changes.
Years ago, I ran a picture on the front page of The Wave of a teenager who had hung himself in a wooded lot in Bayswater.
With the exception of the parents of the young man, we got few complaints.
Had we run the same picture today, we likely would have been inundated with complaints – perhaps reasonably so.
What makes the news? What about the ethical considerations of the news?
Those questions have been around since the first newspaper. They have come to the fore in this politically correct world, but they have existed since man started to write by using stone and chisel.
That is "life itsownself," as Dan Jenkins liked to say.