A Question About: Tyler Hicks and the Qaddafi Album, Part I

During the fall of Tripoli in August, photojournalist Tyler Hicks found and published through the The New York Times Lens Blog a personal photography album of Muammar el-Qaddafi. After its publication, questions arose about the decision to do so. To get a response to the questions surrounding the case, we contacted three experts in media ethics for their thoughts.

This is Part 1 of 2 and features an email conversation with Bill Reader, Associate Professor, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, that took place between November 26th and 28th, 2011. Part 2 will be published Thursday and feature responses from Stephen J. A. Ward, Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics, Director, Center for Journalism Ethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Patrick Lee Plaisance, Associate Professor, Department of Journalism & Technical Communication, Colorado State University.

The question: Obviously Qaddafi was a dictator with a lot to answer for, but is there an ethical line crossed by Tyler Hicks in publishing Qaddafi's personal photography album? In a devil's advocate analogy, if the police accuse and suspect someone of mass murder, enter their house and an accompanying journalist finds and publishes that person's personal photography album, I think most would agree a line has been crossed. If an accused war crimes suspect leaves an album behind while fleeing and the same thing happens, is a line crossed? How do the rules of war change the ethics of journalism?

The respondent: Bill Reader, Associate Professor, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and co-author, with Steven Knowlton, of Moral Reasoning for Journalists (Praeger, 2008)

The response: This is an interesting case. I appreciate the opportunity to respond.

First of all, it's important to be clear up front that "ethical" and "unethical" are not synonyms for "right" and "wrong." "Ethical" means a choice was made with careful consideration with the goal of making the right (or most right) choice. "Unethical" is the realm of knee-jerk and gut reactions; of careless decisions that can only be "right" with a lot of luck. So, the choice to publish Qaddafi's family photos is certainly ethical. The question really should be whether the decision, in retrospect, was more right than wrong.

I cringe a little at the phrase "cross the line" when it comes to ethics. Journalism ethics is not monolithic - there are no "one size fits all" standards, and that applies to all aspects of the profession, from aesthetics to ethics. That is especially true in a global context, as there are so many different forms of journalism operating within so many different cultural contexts. That applies to even the most routine procedures. For example, in the U.S., a TV crew would never imagine using an eyewitness interview without identifying the person, but in Japan it is standard procedure to video only the torso of an eyewitness - not his or her face - to protect their anonymity. In the U.S., we rarely put graphic depictions of violence in newspapers, but in many other nations bloody images of death and destruction are par for the course.

Now, add the variance of "news values" - the textbook classics such as "proximity" and "timeliness" and "impact/magnitude" and (most germane in this case) "prominence."

Qaddafi was a prominent international figure, someone who used that prominence to attain fortune and power almost beyond imagining. He was not a run-of-the-mill war criminal, or even a mid-level lackey. So your point of comparison is not equitable here; Qaddafi chose to be on the world stage, and so the world's interest in him is far greater than mere prurience in the personal details of another person. Many, many books will be written about him, not so much to celebrate the life of a brutal dictator, but rather to shed light on how a nation can elevate and a world can tolerate such tyranny in the modern era.

The photos from the family album are interesting and intriguing in that respect. The few images I saw provided a stark contradiction to the murderous tyrant, perhaps images of a family so enamored with wealth and power that they were oblivious to their own moral trespasses, and to the suffering that provided them with that luxurious lifestyle. They - dare I say it? - remind us that Qaddafi and his family were/are human beings. His crimes were not the works of some monster, but rather of profound human failings.

That is a lesson we all should be reminded of from time to time.

Now, the nut graf: We see such images all the time in biographies of former presidents, of great generals, and of stars of stage and screen. In many ways, what Tyler Hicks did is a modern-day version of sticking a few glossy pages of photos in the center of a biographical book. It's pretty much standard journalistic practice. It would take a fairly persnickety leap of academic navel-gazing to argue that it was profoundly wrong to publish photos from Qaddafi's family albums.

P.S. - It occurs to me that you did not explicitly ask about the ethics of taking the family photos in the first place. Although I see no problem in publishing the photos from Qaddafi's family album, I do question the ethics of pilfering the album, as it is either still the personal property of the family or it belongs to the people of Libya (assuming they seized Qaddafi's assets). If, however, he did get permission from the Libyan government, such as it is, then there's no problem. It does not appear from his blog post that he obtained any such permission.

From an ethics (vs. legal) perspective, stealing is generally only morally acceptable in the most extreme cases, such as stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child, or stealing a handgun from a relative or neighbor who has declared murderous intentions. Tyler Hicks did not require the photo album for his or anybody else's survival. Although I agree the Libyan government owes him something (for taking him prisoner back in March), he does not have any moral (or legal, I think) standing to remove items without permission. His argument on the NYT blog is that he took them to prevent them from being destroyed by looters; given the chaos of the situation, that's ethically defensible. But there is no evidence to suggest that he did not, in fact, loot the photos himself.

fototazo: A basic question would be under whose ethical structure a photojournalist works - the country they are from originally, the country where their employer is based, or the country where they are working?

Reader: As to the "location" issue of ethical frameworks, we are in a global age, so the factor of "where" has become much more complicated. For example, if you recall the "Danish Mohammad cartoon" situation, publishing editorial cartoons of Mohammad in Denmark was only mildly controversial, and an act of defiance against efforts to muzzle free expression. But the images were distributed globally by third parties and caused a firestorm of protest (and deadly riots) in other parts of the world. The ethical framework in Denmark, where the cartoons were published, was more accepting of the act; but the framework in parts of the world where shari'a is the norm, where the cartoons were not published per se, was not accepting of the journalistic act. When we publish, we publish to the world, whether we want to or not.

fototazo: Would the end result then be, if we are publishing for the world, a push towards more internationalized media standards? I'm still curious about the idea of under whose ethical guidelines Hicks was working. The original analogy tried to get at this question: does the fact that Hicks is in Libya working, as opposed to Kansas, change how he can operate as a journalist? If a hypothetical Irishman who works for the Chicago Tribune is photographing in Iran, does his ethical responsibility fall under Irish, US, or Iranian standards? Could he do in Tehran what he can't in Chicago?

Reader: There certainly is a degree of "when in Rome …" when it comes to boots-on-the-ground reporting/photojournalism, as you well know from your own experience. For example, in a culture in which it is common for local/regional media to pay people for interviews, media based in the U.S. (where paying for interviews is largely frowned upon, and is even prohibited by some employment contracts) may have to hold their noses/grant waivers and pay up to get information. Field journalists who take meals with sources (such as in many Muslim countries, where hospitality is a religious obligation) may, however, be breaking the "rules" of their employers, which prohibit their domestic reporters to accept free lunches from politicians.

So the basic answer to your questions (and, indeed, to most questions of journalism ethics) is "it depends on the situation" (my approach to media ethics is decidedly teleological and leans toward libertarianism, as you might be guessing; I'm sure my deontological/social responsibility colleagues would disagree).

Ideally, an ethical journalist will try to adhere to the most basic principles of the profession - be fair to sources and audiences; provide balance in reporting in analysis; try to keep biases in check and strive for independence (objectivity?); only encroach on the privacy of others if the information is of serious public interest; balance the journalist's obligations to inform with sensitivity and compassion for the stakeholders and audiences; avoid deception, obfuscation, and misleading omissions; correct errors; and take responsibility for one's professional decisions.

How those principles are implemented will vary widely, even within the same organization with a fairly rigid "code of ethics" such as the NYT. Info-gathering in the placid culture of Kansas is going to be very different from info-gathering in the chaotic anarchy of Libya or Somalia or, indeed, Colombia.

Aside from exploiting a moment of chaos to remove objects that didn't belong to him, Hicks has been quite transparent about his motives. He feared the photos would be destroyed, and his concern was based on his observations of similar situations. The photos he, um, "obtained," are of serious public interest. His responsibility to inform the public outweighs the desire/need of "privacy" of the deposed/deceased Qaddafi. It was a little bit wrong, as all moral decisions are, but it was mostly done for the right reasons and with the right rationale, it seems. His editors at the NYT then made another level of moral reasoning, and clearly decided to publish the photos. I doubt the NYT would have done the same for the hypothetical mass murderer in Kansas, as the ownership of the photos would have been much more clearly defined (likely, such photos would be considered evidence at a crime scene, and it would be a serious crime to remove such evidence).