Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

To use photos or not: Damaging Photos in an Online Age

By Jessica Silliman

Henry Johnson was nearing the end of his first year as editor-in-chief of The Santa Clara, the campus newspaper, when he received an email from the student director of the Multicultural Center, an organization that governed many cultural clubs and sponsored many events relating to diversity on campus. She had found what she thought were particularly offensive pictures from a recent theme party posted on Facebook, the popular social-networking site. At the party, titled "South of the Border," students dressed up in attire representing Latinos-some came as janitors, female gangsters and pregnant women. Many students within the MCC were outraged. Henry was shocked at the pictures and the carelessness of the individuals to not only dress that way, but also to post the images on the internet. He felt this was an example of the underlying racism that existed on campus. He also immediately saw that this would be the lead story in the next issue of the weekly newspaper.

Henry sent a reporter to cover the story. As the gossip about the story made its way across campus, some students were horrified, others were apathetic and some felt the whole issue was being blown out of proportion. Regardless, Henry knew the paper had to do a story, but he wasn't sure how to handle the photos. The photos had been removed from Facebook after word spread across campus but, because they were at one point accessible online, he thought that they were fair game. In addition, Henry felt that the photos must be printed so students could understand the actual nature of the costumes, but he wasn't sure if their faces should be shown or blurred.

Henry's colleague, the news editor, felt the photos should be run unedited. "They posed for the pictures at the party and were there to show themselves off," she said. "So let's show them off. We claim we want to be seen as a 'real' newspaper, so let's act like one and run the photos. You never see blurred images in the San Jose Mercury News unless it's a photo of someone underage-these individuals knew full well what they were doing."

But Henry wasn't convinced. The paper didn't have photos of everyone at the party, so editors couldn't be sure that these photos were the most representative-some people could have been in more degrading outfits. In addition, several recent theme parties at Santa Clara had been deemed offensive to certain groups, but there were no available photos, so these individuals just seemed to be the victims of time and place. Although he felt what they did was wrong, he wasn't sure they deserved to be icons of racism on the front page.

Showing their faces and providing their names would forever connect them to racist behavior via a quick Google search online-a practice often done by potential employers. As a university newspaper editor, Henry had to take this long-term effect into consideration. How long were they supposed to pay for their wrong-doing?

Henry also believed that showing their faces would draw attention away from the actual issue of racism. Instead of causing a campus debate, people would be caught up in the identity and culpability of the four individuals and mistakenly see this as an isolated event.

He consulted the managing editor and they agreed that, in an attempt to err on the side of caution, they would print the pictures with the faces blurred.

When the newspaper was released that Thursday, the story immediately spread to other news outlets. Within a week, the story-and the blurred images-appeared on a ten minute segment on CNN's national broadcast (CNN had asked to have the unblurred images, but Henry refused and only provided the blurred images). Though some complained about the newspaper's decision to blur the faces, Henry stood by his choice and felt confident in his judgment.

Discussion Questions:

  • Is posting a photo on Facebook a public or private act?
  • Should the age of the individuals photographed be a factor in determining how they should be printed?
  • Should Henry have provided unblurred photos to CNN? Does CNN wanting unblurred photos point to a wrong decision by Henry?
  • Would anyone's rights have been violated by publishing non-blurred photos with full names accompanying them?
  • Do you agree with the editor's decision? Why or why not?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007


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