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Journalistic Integrity or Getting The Shot?

Wendy Horowitz, Librarian, Photo Collection,
Greer Garson weeps in court after describing her husband's cruelty

The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics states that ethical journalism "should be accurate and fair", and journalists should be "courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information."  Journalists are expected and encouraged to get the story and, as long as it's the undeniable truth, boldly and without bias broadcast the news to the world without pulling any punches or exaggerating any facts.  

Yet there is another, often overlooked component to the Code, titled "Minimize Harm."  It states that journalists should "balance the need for information against potential harm or discomfort."  It's likely that this was added in recent years, as some news photographers of the first half of the 20th century tended to have an acute lack of compassion for their targets, and privacy was seldom respected.  As recently as the late 1960s, reporters routinely included a subject's full name, age and home address in their articles, whether the person was famous or not.  They thought nothing of beating the coroner to a murder site to grab a snapshot of the corpse, or invading a victim's home in order to provide the public with intimate and tragic images of grieving family members, often still in a state of shock.

The following is only a handful of examples of such possibly "harmful" reportage, selected from the Photo Collections of LAPL and available on the LAPL website: It is interesting to consider that in some cases the average person may actually be treated with more compassion and afforded more privacy today.  It should also be mentioned that the SPJ Code of Ethics is not a set of rules, "rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsiblity for the information they provide", therefore, the concept of "harm" has been, and continues to be subject to interpretation.

Todd's body found in car

 Captain Wallis of the LAPD homicide squad examines the position of Thelma Todd's body in the driver's seat of her car where she was found dead. (Herald Examiner Collection, 1935) "Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication", SPJ Code of Ethics

Last goodbye

  Barbara Graham, sentenced to die in the gas chamber for murder, says goodbye to her son for the last time. (Herald Examiner Collection, 1953) "Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast", SPJ Code of Ethics.

The Everetts get the news

Mrs. Merle Everett is comforted by her husband in their home, after hearing that Albert Dyer confessed to killing her daughters.  (Herald Examiner Collection, 1937) "Pursuit of news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness", SPJ Code of Ethics.


Three pairs of shoes

Shoes of the three murdered girls, victims of Albert Dyer, found at the crime scene. (Herald Examiner Collection, 1937) "Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do", SPJ Code of Ethics.


Empty desk

The classroom and empty desk of a kidnap-murder victim.  (Herald Examiner Collection, 1951) "Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage", SPJ Code of Ethics.


Mrs. Whalen

Mrs. Jack Whalen, moments after identifying her slain husband's body. (Valley Times Collection, 1959) "Realize that private people have a greater right to control information than public figures", SPJ Code of Ethics. 


Ex-husband and son

 On the steps of their house, Matthew Zdon offers consolation to his 12 year-old son Richard, after Richard found his mother strangled to death inside. (Herald Examiner Collection, 1947). "Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles", SPJ Code of Ethics.


Suicide attempt

 38 year-old secretary Floy Tate, of 939 S. Figueroa, is attended to in Central Receiving Hospital after her suicide attempt. (Herald Examiner Collection, 1947) "Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information", SPJ Code of Ethics.