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On the Scene at a Tragic Shooting and Picking a Filter on Instagram?

From comments to an on-the-scene shot at the Empire State Building shooting by Instagram user @Ryanstryin

Like many users, I often first learn of breaking news from Twitter updates.  This morning’s sad news of the fatal shooting outside of the Empire State Building ran through my feed in typical fashion. I had a heavy heart as I clicked on breaking news links. In the process I also clicked on an Instagram-hosted photo of the crime scene, a close-up shot of a bleeding man laid out on concrete.

There are other similar shots on Instagram and on Flickr too. The comment sections of those shots contain several requests from news agencies including Reuters and The Globe and Mail asking for permission to use the shots in editorially-vetted newstories.

On a less graphic image from the scene posted by user @Ryanstryin, the photographer first captioned his shot “Dead man.” That phrase has not been deleted. Some commenters suggested that he remove the shot in respect for the victim’s family. Others have encouraged him to keep the news uncensored. The photographer weighed in with his thinking:

This was the victim and apologize to his family, but this had to be documented. It was my reality.

We are living some big ethical questions in our new digital world.

I am a huge proponent of what we have come to call Citizen Journalism. And smart phoneography is a dream come true. Documenting your experiences, creating art in the moment, celebrating the details of our daily life, sharing and connecting through visual storytelling, all of it: Digital photography a miracle. I adore and am heartened by the democratic principles behind Instragram, Facebook and Flickr photosharing. I feel lucky to be alive now.

But at the same time, I am appalled that someone would take it upon themselves to share a graphic photograph of a victim in a medical crisis.

We live in amazing times when so much is possible, but in our honeymoon with digital photosharing we need to slow down and develop some ethical standards.

In J-School ethics classes, the questions that guide ethical decisions for photojournalists are some of the hardest and most revealing. Is it ethically sound to shoot during a crisis when you could be more helpful to your subject in another way? Who should be notified before a shot is published? Whose safety might be compromised by your shot? Whose permission is needed? How much gore is acceptable for footage that will appear in people’s homes? Where are the lines? What are the roles for photographers, videographers, editors and publishers in upholding ethical standards balanced with the public’s right to know?

At least that’s how it used to be.

I don’t know anymore. I know I want to talk with my sons, digital natives that they are, about the issues, posing some hypotheticals to tease out some critical thinking. What if you were on the scene at this shooting? What if you were the only person with a camera on the scene? What would make you want to share a photo immediately? What would make you want to wait? Does it make a difference if you were present at the time of the shooting and are therefore an affected bystander, or if you came upon the scene accidentally, or if you rushed to it after-the-fact with the intent of photographing it? Would you sell the photo? What if you were the brother of that man in the photograph, what would you want the Good People of Instagram to do?

What about you? Is it okay to share a photograph just because you have the technology in your hands? Where do you draw the line?

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