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Art in Newsprint: The Evolution of Ethics in Visual Journalism

The single most difficult type of story for a visual journalist to design is breaking news. Breaking news, which involves homicide, battery, death, arrests, drugs and accidents. Editors are on the phone instructing all stories be pushed back – that news feature on the do-gooder teen heading to South America to help build homes will have to wait. 

            Push him to the empty space on the obituary pages if there’s room, if insufficient amounts of people haven’t died that day, allowing for extra editorial space. Wait, that’s not right, we shouldn’t place that story there, there’s a paragraph about how he volunteers at the local hospital helping sick, dying cancer patients. That can’t go on the obits page then. Hold it for tomorrow’s paper.

            Back to the breaking news: An Orland Park man allegedly killed his five-year-old nephew and elderly parents before turning the gun on himself. A reporter is on the scene; the editor is telling you he’s trying to get a photographer out there, but for now the photos from the reporter’s iPhone will have to do.

            The photos finally come in and attach to the article an hour before deadline but they’re grainy and dark. The first one is a photo of the house, now taped off by police. The second shows a gurney being wheeled to the corner’s white van.

            The first photo is placed on the cover; the second is too graphic, too personal. Only a thin white cloth separates the victim from the eyes of the readers. The headline is lifted right from the quotes in the story. “HOW COULD HE HAVE DONE THIS?” It comes from the next-door neighbor, someone who knew them much better than you ever did. There are no punny headlines, no witty play on words – and a straightforward ‘MAN KILLS NEPHEW, PARENTS’ is much more appropriate for the inside page.

            No two days are alike in newspaper design – everyday is a new puzzle that needs to be put together. There are guidelines to follow, such as starting with the edges first, which visual journalists follow. In journalism, those guidelines are along the form of pre-made templates and standard design stand ins, which include headlines, subheads, bylines and photo cutlines. The truth is, there is no set way in which a page can be designed. Every page, every day, every story is different – and it’s not set in stone until the ink touches paper.

            The amount of ethical consideration that is placed into every page design is what separates visual journalists from graphic designers. The amount of journalistic background and ethics that visual journalist need to possess in order to be a news designer, an opinion designer and even a sports designer, is much more involved than a designer working for a print design firm. Knowledge of AP, ethical practices including and not limited to photos, headline writing, biasness and placement of both editorial and advertisement content are all crucial in becoming a visual journalist.
            While both aim to produce visually engaging content, a visual journalist’s audience is much more widespread. Reporters are encouraged to write at a fifth-grade reading level, while designers are taught to design from a non-arts audience point of view. Headlines need to remain catchy, but understandable. Design visually interesting and one that draws the viewer in, but not so overly designed that it turns off a reader.

            Visual Journalism continues to be a fine balancing act between attainable, everyday art and just another piece of paper to throw out at the end of the day. While the average reader might not know the thought, trial and error and overall production of the average newspaper, the fact that they’ve picked it up at all is a testament to the designer.
            Of course, there are also the headlines that sell themselves, such as the case with the murder of the boy and his grandparents. A few days after his uncle allegedly murdered him, the five-year-old was laid to rest by his parents. A photographer was at the church and waited for the family to reappear after the mass.
            Typically, photojournalists do not enter churches or courthouses, unless sanctioned by the photo assignment to do so. The photos began to flood into the design desk shortly after the mass. Six photos total, five prominently focused on the small, white casket being carried out by four palm bearers.
            The sixth was a photo of a tearful mourner, being helped down the stairs by the man next to her. The photographer had not gotten her name or information out of respect for her mourning and only captioned the photo as ‘a mourner exits St. Rita church after the ceremony.’
            Her photo made it’s way onto the cover that day. The initial photo of the house was paired with the follow-up story inside, accompanied by the photo of the victims, which were submitted, to the newspaper by the family. The photos of the casket, taken by the photographer after the wake never made it into print.
            Photography was introduced in newsprint for the first time in 1880, but didn’t become a common feature until the early 1900s, with the popularization of the camera (Harrower, 4). Today, photojournalism makes up a whole division of newspapers and journalism altogether and adhere to their own set of ethics.

            With the introduction of photography, newspapers began to take shape and resemble what we’re used to seeing on newsstands today; designers began experimenting with typeface sizes and fonts. Headlines were bigger, bolder and in your face. The newspapers themselves also grew and evolved, adding pages to include crime, sports, travel and foreign sections (Harrower, 5).

            However, these rapid growths also lead to the rise of yellow journalism, in which stories were sensationalized, poorly researched and had no legitimate facts. Large headlines would be exaggerated in order to sell papers, which was later deemed unethical and unprofessional. Standards like these were later set forth by the rise of professional societies such as The Society of Professional Journalists and The Society of News Design.

            The Society of Professional Journalists serves as a standard for all journalists, which encompass editors, reporters, photographers and designers, in all forms of journalism. Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that ‘public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues’ (SPJ Code of Ethics). In reference to design, the society believes ‘headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context’ (SPJ Code of Ethics).

            The society also holds its members to adhere to certain rules about handing each other’s work, such as a designer working with a photographer’s photos or video. ‘Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations’ (SPJ Code of Ethics). Manipulating or staging photographs or illustrations for the purpose of selling the story should also be avoided, as it is unethical and the difference unclear to the reader. ‘Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it’ (SPJ Code of Ethics).

            While all journalists adhere to the code of ethics set forth by The Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of News Design is specifically geared towards visual journalists and publication design. They believe that their members should ‘have an obligation to promote the highest ethical standards for visual journalism as they apply to the values of accuracy, fairness, honesty, inclusiveness, and courage’ (SND Code of Ethics). When it comes to depicting the news, designers ‘must ensure that our content is a verifiable representation of the news and of our subjects. We promise never intentionally to mislead those who depend upon us for public service’ (SND Code of Ethics).

            On the basis of ethical practices regarding photoshoping and representation of truthful design integrity, the Society of News Design suggests ‘work be free from fraud and deception — that includes plagiarism and fabrication. We will attribute content and honor copyrights’ (SND Code of Ethics). That includes and is not limited to, attribution of sources and crediting when credit is due and have clear solid designs, which do not misrepresent stories to readers. This also includes providing readers with clear concise headlines, subheads and designs, which ‘avoid stereotypes’ (SND Code of Ethics) and don’t offend any particular set of people, religions or beliefs.

            This current set of ethics from both The Society of Professional Journalists and The Society of News Design have been rewritten several times over the past 100 years as newspapers began to evolve. The style of newspapers has dramatically evolved from the early days of colonial America, to the tabloid-infested newsstands of major metropolitan cities, yet its purpose remains the same, to alert and inform the mainstream. With that evolution came the need for artists within newspapers, visual journalists, to develop pages and produce visually engaging pages, attracting readers to the stories on page.

            Just like today’s newspapers look nothing like Publick Occurrences, America’s first publication, printed by Richard Pierce and edited by Benjamin Harris, which resembled much more of a pamphlet than a modern newspaper, our present-day code of ethics looks nothing like the ones that preceded it.

            Publick Occurrences (1690) was designed with a simple but large flag, which sat on top of a two-column grid with very little gutter space (Harrower, 4). Similar to newspaper design itself, the both The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics has undergone rewrites in 1926, 1973 and most recently in 2010 (SPD.org). The latest revision left out things that were deemed unnecessary, or was already a commonly known tool of the trade.
            The 2010 revision left out things such as ‘testing the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error’ (SPJ.org). This instead was replaced with ‘Aggressively gather and update information as the story unfolds and work to avoid error. Deliberate distortion and reporting unconfirmed rumors are never permissible’ (SPJ.org). It seems as though a reporter or editor can not possibly keep track of all of their sources and test every single piece of information, so rather than go through all that for every piece, work throughout the writing of the article to ensure that the information is valid and from a reliable source.

            Another piece taken out during the 2010 revision was ‘Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity in dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects. Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief’ (SPJ.org). It was instead replaced by ‘Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or invasive behavior’ (SPJ.org).
            The breaking news of the young boy, who was killed alongside his grandparents, was a prime example of this. The editors and designers decided that placing the photo of the young boy’s casket on the cover would be too insensitive to his family, who were still in mourning. While it may have been cut out, journalists should still show compassion for the people they’re coving. Just because a family is all of a sudden, a part of the news does not mean they want to be. The only thing this boy’s family wants to do is grieve, and they shouldn’t need to bury their child while the dirty details are splashed across the front cover.

            While these recent updates reflect several advancements in our field, new transitions and evolutions should now be included, in particular to photojournalism and the sub sequential design issues that arise. Photojournalists have also as of recently begun seeing a change in their roles and department. In a much publicized business move, The Chicago Sun-Times fired their entire staff of photographers – 28 total, including the award winning John White in May 2013.
            The tabloid-sized publication armed their reporters with iPhones and asked them to fill both their role as a journalist and now that of a photojournalist. This presents two separate problems. First of all, the reporters now taking photos for their publication were never trained as photojournalists and thus they don’t have the necessary technical and ethical skills that photojournalists possess.
            Reporters for the most part can enter places such as churches and courthouses. They sit in the back and wait for the appropriate time to approach their interview subject. If they are now tasked with taking their own photographs, they might not have the knowledge or ethical integrity to not shoot photos in those circumstances.

            They might also be too close to the subject and that might come through in their photographs. A reporter working on a story of a special needs child might focus their camera on the smiling girl, completely eliminating the specially designed bike on which she’s sitting on – the entire focus of the story.

            Secondly, reporter-shot art provide designers on the design desk with poorly lit photographs, grainy, small files and inartistically cropped images. Consequently, this has made designer’s jobs much more difficult. Photos are no longer large file sized and as a result, articles are accompanied by grainy, blurry, poorly cropped photos instead of the high-quality, thought-provoking RAW image files they were accustomed to working with.

            So designers at The Chicago Sun-Times, and at publications that followed in their lead, including Suburban Life Publications and Shaw Media, had to think of other ways to engage readers and keep them coming back to their publications.

            This leads designers to rely on stock image photography, which can give a publication a cookie-cutter feel. This also gives the designer license to determine the art themselves, which might not always be a clear representation of the actual story.  

            Traditionally, a reporter and a photographer work together on a story, which provides the design desk with a clean cut view of what the overall package is about and that way they can design the story the way the reporter or editor intended it, instead of going off and finding random stock art that they think describes the story.

            While the future of visual journalism may still be unclear, whether that be through the development of photojournalism, ethical practices and the evolution of design techniques, one thing is for sure: the reader will always want a truthful, well-reported and well-designed publication. Just how much truth, is up to the journalists in the newsroom, and how they adhere to the standards set by The Society of Professional Journalists and The Society of News Design.
            In the past 50 years alone, visual journalism has come pretty far, especially when considering the coverage of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s death. In the June 5, 1968 edition of The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Kennedy’s death is announced in big bold letters: ‘RFK CLINGS TO LIFE, VERY CRITICAL, SUSPECT IDENTIFIED’. On the cover is a photo of the Senator on the floor, with his bloodstained shirt open while he clutches rosary beads. On the inside is a graphic of the Senator’s head as the designer has shown the trajectory of the bullet and has very simply mapped out the way Senator Kennedy was shot.

            Today, neither the headline, photo of the Senator or the very graphic, graphic would have made it’s way into the paper, much less the front page. Instead the headline would have read much more simply ‘SENATOR KENNEDY SHOT’. The photo on the front cover would have been of the hospital, of his assistant making the announcement, of the Senator before he was shot. The graphic inside would have been a list of other people who had attempted assassinations on them while in office, not a detailed description of the shooting.

            At the end of the day, when all is said and done, visual journalism isn’t meant to be in the reader’s face, it runs in the background, while the reader is seemingly unaware just how many design elements are on a page and how much time, evolution, ingenuity and history has lead to that one news page -- and just how many ethical considerations went into the careful curating it took to get those stories on those pages.

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