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Thursday, June 21, 2012
Ethics Toolbox

Misrepresentation: An ethics tragedy

By Kevin Z. Smith

People magazine pulled no punches with its April 9, 2012, cover showing deceased Florida youth Trayvon Martin’s innocent good looks peering over the emboldened yellow wording: “An American Tragedy.”

It was a clear message with an obvious editorial agenda, magazine design students from the University of Central Florida told me recently during a visit to that school, pulling no punches of their own in their critique of the cover.

The school photo of Martin was one that had been released by the family and widely circulated among the media. It showed a good-looking 12-year-old young boy, dark dress shirt, arms folded, a hint of a smile on his face with a landscape of flowers as the backdrop. In other words, the perfect depiction of an American youth.

The first issue they had with the photo was that it presented Martin when he was 12. He was shot and killed by Sanford, Fla., resident George Zimmerman, just minutes from the UCF campus, when he was 17. Of the nearly half dozen photos available to the media at this time, why use this photo on the cover? They also noted the police mug photo of Zimmerman used in the magazine when more appealing images were available.

“This (cover) isn’t so much about showing reality, but rather presenting what they want people to believe. It’s about creating the story that their readers want, rather than what might have happened. It presents a story that sells magazines,” one student said.

Given the close proximity of the campus to the shooting site, and being journalism students on the doorstep of a national story, they were acutely aware of the issue, the use of images and how this was playing out in the media. Asked if they would use that photo of Martin on the cover, nearly all said they would not. They would opt for more recent and neutral images, avoiding bias.

Then there is the headline, “An American Tragedy.” If it sounds vaguely familiar, it should, served with a heaping side of irony. It’s the exact wording of a 1994 issue of Time with then-accused murder suspect O.J. Simpson on the cover. The now-infamous cover has become a legend in ethical case lore for photo-manipulation because Time intentionally darkened the Simpson portrait.

Could People be doing the same with its photo of Martin, intentionally attempting to set off a prejudicial firestorm with the public by its selection of cover photos and wording, just as Time did nearly two decades ago? The headline coincidence wasn’t lost on the students.

The UCF students, who had spent an entire semester designing magazines and their covers, saw both as blatant attempts to sway public discourse through carefully selected imaging. While they agreed that the Simpson photo was a clear violation of ethical standards in that it was digitally manipulated to achieve the desired intentions, they nevertheless saw the Martin photo as a means to reach the same ending as the Simpson photo, which meant misleading the public.

For most journalists, and for these students, neither cover represented fairness or accuracy, two uncompromising tenets of a responsible press. Simpson and Martin didn’t look like their respective images, and that was a fact well known to editors who made the decision to use them. Both publications, with other photos at their disposal, elected to use ones that skewed reality and failed to provide a balance of truth about these suspects and victims, and that meant intent to deceive and establish an agenda, according to the students.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “seek truth and report it.” In both cases, the selected images seem to dodge that important responsibility. In the future, magazine editors might be best served by looking for guidance from SPJ’s Code or referring to the Society’s newest ethics case study book, “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media,” which suggest journalists would be well served before using images by first answering:

1. Do I need more information about the facts or context of the image?

2. Can I verify that the photo or image is accurate?

3. What is the motivation for publishing this photo?

4. What are the ethical and legal concerns?

5. Who will be offended? Does the offense outweigh the value of presenting the image?

6. How would I react if I saw the photo?

7. Can alternative ways be used to present the information that would minimize harm?

8. Will the end (of using this photo) justify the action?

9. Is there potential of establishing a new set of ethical standards by using this image and do I want that to happen?

10. Can I justify my decision?

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