I’m currently taking COM 440 Journalism Ethics. This is my mini-essay about the ethical circumstances surrounding the publication of a photo of a grieving family gathered around a dead body:

Ethical Situation: Dead Body Photo

In July 1985, photojournalist John Harte of the Bakersfield Californian heard on the police scanner about a drowning at a lake 25 miles from Bakersfield. At the scene, the sheriff kept onlookers at bay as the family and officials gathered around the body bag of five-year-old Edward Romero. Harte ducked under the sheriff’s arms and shot several photos of the family grieving over the dead boy, capturing the newsworthy moment on film.

Harte and editors of The Californian faced an ethical dilemma: Should they run the picture or not? By using the Potter Box diagram for moral analysis, The Californian’s best judgment of the ethical situation would have been to adhere to its original policy of not running pictures of dead bodies, because the suffering family was entitled to dignity and respect.

Relevant values for this ethical situation include professional values for newsworthiness and moral values concerning privacy protection. Regarding professional values, Harte was fulfilling his role as a photojournalist and visual historian to capture the newsworthy moment of the boy’s death in a photo. He would simply be reporting an event of public concern and perhaps simultaneously increasing circulation of the newspaper by exploiting the human penchant for morbidity. Moral values for this case surround the idea that the family’s privacy should be respected during a time of grief and tragedy. In terms of humanity, it can be argued that the public has no right to participate in the traumatizing event.

The principle I am personally most aligned with for this ethical situation is Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act on that maxim which you will to become a universal law.” Kant’s Categorical Imperative supports a moral policy to protect the privacy of individuals because it is morally right to unconditionally respect a person’s right to privacy. Just like the golden rule—do unto others as they do unto you—it should be our moral obligation to respect a person’s privacy because we would want them to respect ours.

Relevant loyalties for this ethical situation include loyalty to the suffering family, the readers of The Californian, and the newspaper itself. Sympathy toward the Romero family would most-likely lead to a decision based on the moral values concerning their right to privacy. Sympathy toward the general readership of the newspaper would almost certainly result in the publication of the photo based on the newsworthiness and the utilitarian appeal to promote water safety. An overriding loyalty to the news institution may lean toward professional values as well— although printing the photo may not increase circulation of the newspaper as hoped, but instead influence angry readers to cancel their subscription because they do not agree with the decision to print the photo.

The Caifornian should have considered the ethical guidelines established by Kant’s Categorical Imperative, because the Romero family deserved their privacy in a time of grief and tragedy, despite the fact that events had made them part of the news. The ethical dilemma revolved around the need for honest visual information and for respected privacy. The better judgment would have been to value protection of privacy over other professional values, and thus sympathize with the suffering family.

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