Potter Box Teaches Loyalty

This column attempts to help photojournalists work their way through the process of making a tough ethical decision. The information in this column is very practical for anyone wrestling with competing values.

This column appeared in the September 2011 issue of New Photographer Magazine.

 Readers depend on a free press to help make democracy work.

By John Long

Our hearts go out to Tony Overman. He is an NPPA past president who was faced with making an ethical choice on the spur of the moment (as is almost always the case) and is now facing the consequences. Overman was covering a street event that turned violent and was asked by police to help with identifying those involved by showing the police the images from the event on the his camera’s display screen. He was torn between two valid loyalties, both of which were good. In the heat of the action he had to choose between aiding the police, as any decent citizen should, and being loyal to the ideals of his newspaper and his profession. In other words, does he help the police by showing his unpublished photographs or does he support the right of journalists to protect their sources and their right to be impartial observers, free of government intervention?

 Several points need to precede this discussion:

 Overman is being disciplined not for showing the police his photographs but for withholding that information from his newspaper. This is analogous to the situation of Roger Clemens – the former baseball pitcher is on trial not for taking steroids but for lying to Congress about it.

 In this age of social media, what constitutes a published photograph? With today’s smart phones, everyone is a news photographer. If something is on the screen of a phone, is it then considered published? If it is immediately Tweeted or put on Facebook, is it published? The rules are very much in flux.

 NPPA honors photographers who put their cameras down and help in emergencies. Kevin Carter was highly criticized by the public for not helping the child in his famous famine and vulture photograph. Are we not all citizens and human beings first and foremost?

 There has always been a certain level of cooperation between photographers and the civil authorities. You bring photographs to the fire station after a big fire to curry favor at the next big fire. But during the Vietnam era police were trying to subpoena our negatives in order to identify protesters, and newspapers such as mine put in strict rules about releasing photographs – only published photographs could leave the building.

 Also, every photographer I ever met who entered a POY or BOP contest has used unpublished photographs in his or her portfolio. Newspapers and contest officials winked at this conduct.

 Steve Raymer, a former National Geographic magazine staff photographer, is a professor of journalism at Indiana University where he teaches photojournalism, reporting war and terrorism, and media ethics and values. He has written this practical process for addressing ethical dilemmas:

The revelation that Tony Overman, a veteran photographer of The Olympian in Washington State, supplied police with unpublished images of local anarchist protestors engaged in acts of violence, and then lied about it to his editors, brings into sharp relief the conflicting loyalties all journalists face sometime during their careers.

Overman’s lying to his editors is inexcusable, but his ethical dilemma over whether to cooperate with law enforcement authorities, the military, or other government agencies is one that is familiar to many of us. We live in a time when few of us have the luxury of a being faithful or loyal to a single person or institution. Rather, we have competing loyalties to our fellow citizens, our profession of journalism, our employers, and most importantly, our readers and viewers – the public that dependents upon independent journalists to hold governments and institutions accountable, to give voice to the poor and those at the margins of society, and to serve as a mirror of our society.

As former NPPA president John Long writes in his introduction to this valuable “teachable moment,” many of us on the street for daily newspapers or broadcast stations, or on overseas assignments far from our editors, are forced to make ethical decisions – choices that can affect the public and our careers – in an instant. Rarely do we have the luxury of a considered discussion with colleagues or mentors who can guide our ethical decisions.

I tell students that we are not born with ethics built into our DNA, but rather we must learn, and constantly relearn, how to do ethics. And to my mind, the teaching philosophy of the United States armed forces might just as well apply to the need to make ethical decision-making part of our in-service professional training programs. As soldiers, sailors, and airmen all know, they train like they’re going to fight, often in dangerous and highly realistic scenarios, and fight like they have trained when combat begins. So, too, must journalists be trained in making ethical decisions in the heat of the moment.

In the end, being loyal to the profession of journalism means maintaining high professional standards like those set out in the NPPA Code of Ethics and the codes of many newspapers, broadcast outlets, magazines, and online publications. Politicians and the public may occasionally see us as disloyal to government, the military, and such, but as Professors Philip Patterson and Lee Wilkins write in Media Ethics: Issues and Cases, “journalism is one of those professions with a higher expected norm of conduct.”

So how do we work our way through the minefield of conflicting loyalties? The theologian Ralph B. Potter Jr., an emeritus professor of social ethics at Harvard University, has devised a four-step processor for making ethical judgments that is called simply the Potter Box. There are other good models, but the Potter Box is the one I make students not just commit it to memory, but adopt as part of their professional ethos. Knowing how to quickly solve an ethical dilemma may one day save someone’s life or reputation or have a major impact on public opinion. In the case of Overman, knowing the Potter Box might have helped to keep him out of the news and on the street reporting the news.

 The Potter Box is as straightforward as it is simple.

Step one is to understand the facts and not hide anything from ourselves – or our colleagues and editors. No one can sort out their conflicting loyalties if they are deceiving themselves about what is at stake.

 The second step is to understand what values are at play. For journalists it may be truth, privacy, immediacy, or even an aesthetic value – which picture is most pleasing to the eye or is the ultimate decisive moment? A less lofty value may be keeping our job. Understanding what is at sake is going to help us see more clearly our choices and the compromises we may have to make, say Patter and Wilkins.

 Next, we need to apply those philosophical or ethical principles that we learned as undergraduates in journalism school or philosophy classes.

Does the model of social utility – basically, serving a greater social good though recognizing we may cause some individual harm – work best? Or does Aristotle’s idea of the golden mean counsel that we need to find a virtuous middle ground among an array of often-bad choices? The German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about universal laws that we should never violate – lying, for example, or using people as a means to an end. Does Kant’s categorical imperative model best apply? John Rawls, another philosopher, suggested we empathize with those who are most affected by our decisions, placing ourselves in their shoes and asking if it were us, would we be comfortable with outcome of a tough ethical choice by someone less enlightened. Finally, many of us raised in the great Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are familiar with the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or words to that effect.

Ethical principles may point to contradictory choices, but by applying more than one model we are better equipped to understand the situation. The models will not solve our problems, but they help us understand our choices when we face a dilemma.

Finally, we need to articulate our loyalties and decide if they are in conflict. Sometimes our loyalties are going to be more compatible than we first thought. But at other times we may be forced to abandon one strongly held loyalty to, say, our country, as I had to do in dealing with the FBI and CIA during the Cold War, to be loyal to our professional obligation to be independent of government and hence credible. Reporting on the Soviet Union for five years at National Geographic tested my loyalties on many occasions.

Overman says he did what was right as a citizen of Olympia, and few would dispute this. But as Andy Rooney of CBS News’ ”Sixty Minutes” show has said on more than one occasion, “sometimes Americans are a little too patriotic for their own good.” In the end, the Potter Box probably would have shown that the more difficult, but more ethically justifiable, choice was loyalty to profession, employer, and readers, who depend upon a free and independent press to help make democracy work.

Peter Southwick, Associate Professor of Journalism at Boston University faced one such incident in his earliest days as a newspaper photographer. He wrote:

It was not a defining moment. No lives were at stake, and I doubt I would have been disciplined if I had made a different decision. As a raw rookie in the profession, I had no storehouse of knowledge I could draw on when I had to make a quick judgment, but the more I use this example in my teaching, the grayer the gray areas become.

In the early 1980s, nuclear power was a national hot-button issue, and the flashpoint was the construction of a nuclear reactor in Seabrook, NH. I covered several demonstrations protesting the construction, leading to a major confrontation between anti-nuclear activists and the authorities. Police and National Guard were in place to protect the power plant site from the demonstrators, and the potential for violence and mass arrests had increased.

My initial challenge was to put aside my own deeply held opinion on the issue of nuclear power so I could provide objective coverage. I put myself in the middle of the action, going with the demonstrators as they approached the high fence surrounding the plant site. Police and guardsmen rushed to the other side of the fence to prevent the protesters from gaining access. The protesters had brought bolt cutters to breach the fence and gain access to the property, and when they began to cut the chain link the police threatened them with arrest and readied tear gas to disperse them. The protesters scattered, and in their flight they left the bolt cutters at the base of the fence. One police officer looked at me through the fence and yelled, “Throw me the bolt cutters!” When I didn’t respond, he repeated, “Throw me those bolt cutters, NOW!”

I had to make a quick ethical decision. My reaction was to walk slowly backwards, and pretend to ignore the police officer. After a few shouted threats he gave up on me and shouted his order to another photographer, who picked up the bolt cutters and threw them over the fence to the police. I was off the hook, but later that day I had plenty of time to think over my response and the actions of the other photographer.

 

  • Was I under any obligation to obey the police order?

  • Should I have assisted them in preventing a crime (vandalism, destruction of property, trespass)?

  • Would I have compromised my role as a journalist by acting as an agent of the authorities, making myself suspect to the demonstrators?

  • Did I allow my personal beliefs to affect my decision?

  • Would I have acted differently if the object had been a weapon rather than bolt cutters, raising the stakes on the potential for harm?

  • Did I allow my commitment to being a journalist trump my duty as a citizen?

  • If the other photographer had not complied, would I have been willing to be arrested to maintain my neutrality?

On reflection I was comfortable with my response, and I felt the other photographer had made a mistake in complying. This was a small incident with no serious potential for harm, but it can still serve as a teaching moment. I believe it is vital that journalists do not give the appearance of acting as agents of authorities, and we have to be willing to pay the price for maintaining that position. If we cross that line and the public suspects our motives or questions our role, we threaten to undermine our credibility. To be clear, I am in no way passing judgment on Overman and his actions. He is a fine photojournalist who deserves our support. But every time such an ethical dilemma comes to light, it is important for each of us to look inside ourselves and think how we might have reacted in similar circumstances.

 Ethics Committee chair John Long along with committee members Steve Raymer and Peter Southwick co-authored this column.