Photo Credit Ethics image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Photographers usually like credit for the work they do.

It seemed strange, then, when a seventeen year-old freelance photographer refused a byline on a photo he submitted to an Arkansas newspaper. It showed the inside of a private business that had been gutted by fire.

The teenager hangs out in fire and police departments that tip him off to newsworthy events, giving him access that is not available to other media. Developing contacts usually in considered a smart way to operate in the news business.

But the newspaper’s weekend editor called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if there is something unethical about that exclusive arrangement between the young photographer and the police and fire departments. Especially troubling was the photographer’s refusal to take a photo credit.

“We’re not sure if it’s because he fears reaction from the company (that had the fire) or from the firefighters who let him inside the scene,” said the editor. “Our questions are: Should he have taken the photo in the first place? Should we run his name with it since he did take it, and is it unethical not to accept the photo credit? And, if a journalist has an advantage such as this over other media outlets through a volunteer or organizational system, is it okay to use it to the paper’s advantage?”

The AdviceLine advisor responded by asking a few questions, which produced these results:

“Turns out the seventeen year-old is the grandson of the general manager of the paper, a paper which is one of three sister papers,” reported the advisor. “No one had talked to him (the photographer) about why he did not want a photo credit.”

The advisor and the editor discussed being transparent and accountable.

“The bigger issue, however, was that there were no guidelines at any of the newspapers for how to deal with bylines and credits. I found out that none of the papers in this group follow a code of ethics of any kind. “

As a start, the advisor encouraged the editor to consult the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics because it contains guidelines that would be helpful in her case.

“These papers are small and some newspaper personnel work for volunteer fire departments then take photos while they are on the job – photos that eventually appear in the paper,” wrote the advisor in her report on this case. The editor and the advisor talked further about conflicts of interest.

After the discussion with the AdviceLine advisor, the editor and the newspaper’s staff planned a meeting to create guidelines and discuss the SPJ code of ethics.

The case illustrated the importance of having written standards that are known and understood by the entire staff. They can be carefully thought-out in advance and used as a reference when the need arises, rather than struggling to come up with answers whenever an ethics issue arises.

The case also shows that the news business is not necessarily a cut-throat enterprise as it often is portrayed. The editor was concerned about having an unfair advantage over other news operations through unethical practices. Good for her.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

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