A Case Study for Media Ethics

This story came from Nanfang Daily.  Recently, several websites published a couple of news photographs from Xiamen, China.  These photographs were taken on the afternoon of May 9, 2005.  At the time, it was raining heavily.  A bicyclist approached an intersection in Xiamen.  Suddenly, the front wheel of the bicycle dropped into a deep hole which he could not see because it was covered by rainwater.  The bicyclist lost his balance and fell flat on his face.  The photographer was there to record everything.


These photographs drew a lot of comments from netizens.

On one hand, there were those who condemned the photographer for knowing that there was a big hole in the road, standing there with camera in hand and waiting for a victim to come along in order get these cool shots.  Here are some quotes: "The photos are fantastic, but the photographer was ethically deprived.  He knew that there was a hole but he did not post a warning sign for people.  Instead, he just waited confidently to catch someone flipping over."  "The reporter knew for sure that an accident was going to occur, but he just watched.  I despise him."

On the other hand, the photographer had his supporters: "The reporter was very objective and professional.  Reporters are only supposed to be observers.  If they enter the event, they become volunteer workers."

What do you think?

But before you decide, you should hear from the photographer Liu Tao (柳涛):

At the time, there were storm gusts and heavy rains in Xiamen.  I was passing by that intersection.  Someone saw me with the camera and asked if I was a reporter.  I said yes.  He said that there is a hole in the road and someone had fallen already, and that the media people should make a news report.  I looked at where he was pointing to, and I only saw an area of water.  I could not even see the road surface, not to mention a hole.  Using my reporter's instinct, I held my camera and waited there.  Later, a bicyclist came down the road and he fell over.  I took photographs of the process.  The photographer's profession is sometimes very cruel.  It was wet and windy, and I stood there for almost an hour before I captured that scene.  If I did not get this, I could not use a photograph to claim that there was a hole there.  If I could not photograph the hole, the government departments will not pay any attention, and the hole won't get filled.  That would mean even more people falling when it rains.  After I took the photos, I went to a nearby construction site and got material to post a sign there to warn people."

Are you a reporter first, or a citizen first?  A good citizen would have gone and gotten the sign before worrying about taking photographs.

There is also a matter of degree.  If the hazard were potentially fatal (e.g. a 10-meter deep hole), it is doubtful that the reporter would have done what he did.  The Nanfang Daily article went on to cite the story of Kevin Carter.  That famous case was much more extreme than the Xiamen case.  I will cite Scott Macleod in TIME, "The Life and Death of Kevin Carter" September 12, 1994 Volume 144, No. 11.

Born in 1960, Kevin Carter was an award winning South African photojournalist. He began his career photographing scenes of the violent struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. However, it was a 1993 picture of a famine victim in Sudan that would change his life forever.

"He heard a soft, high-pitched whimpering and saw a tiny girl trying to make her way to the feeding center. As he crouched to photograph her, a vulture landed in view. Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. It did not, and after he took his photographs, he chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle."

This picture earned Carter the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. "I swear I got the most applause of anybody," Carter wrote back to his parents in Johannesburg. "I can't wait to show you the trophy. It is the most precious thing, and the highest acknowledgment of my work I could receive." Carter's joy would not last.

Friends and colleagues would come to question why he had not done more to help the child in the photograph? "The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering," said the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, "might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene."

Burdened with feelings of guilt and sadness, Kevin Carter took his own life On July 27, 1994. His suicide note stated in part, "...I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children..."

Related LinkSomething about photojournalists in rainstorms  Joel Martinsen, Danwei