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Legal and ethical considerations in photojournalism


Students will discuss what photographers are legally allowed to print under the First Amendment.  Then, they will consider what types of photos should be printed. Students will examine several different controversial photos that have appeared in print in the past and discuss their merit.  Students will also discuss the tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics and consider issues like student privacy when it comes to photography, especially as it relates to print, online, and social media accounts.


  • Students will consider a variety of ethical scenarios when it comes to printing controversial photos.
  • Students will study various Codes of Ethics and apply those tenets to print photography.
  • Students will examine how the issue of ethical photos also applies to social media accounts.
  • Students will think critically about ideas and participate in a wide range of discussions.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.c. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.d. Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.


90 minutes (Two 45-minute classes)


Class set: SPJ Code of Ethics

Class set: Appropriate photo chart

Links to or copies of controversial photos in history

Lesson step-by-step

1. Building background — 10 minutes

Discuss with students: what do students think journalists should be legally allowed to print when it comes to photography (Review the First Amendment – freedom of the press)? Are there any things that you think photographers should NOT be allowed to put in print?  Teachers can ask leading questions to get students to think about these issues OR just present them with this information:

1) Anyone can take any pictures they want in a public place (a public place includes any place open to the public, including malls, parks, etc).

2) If the photographer is on public property, he can take pictures of private property.

3) Government buildings can prohibit photography, even though they are public.

4) Photographers on private property are legally obligated to listen to requests not to take pictures.

2. Group work — 10 minutes

Hand out the Appropriate Photo Chart.  Working in groups, tell students to discuss where they think photos of the following categories would be appropriate or inappropriate.  They can mark “yes” or “no” in each box.  Tell students to try to come to a consensus in their group – if the group disagrees, discuss it to see if they can reach a conclusion.

3. Class share — 15 minutes

Once students are finished completing the chart in their groups, ask students to share their opinions with the class.  Discuss any differences of opinion.  Was it difficult for everyone in your group to reach the same conclusions?  Then, ask students to consider the concept of social media and online websites: what additional responsibilities should students consider when determining whether a photo is appropriate for posting on social media? How does this differ for students posting to their individual social media accounts or student journalists posting to official journalism accounts?

4. Individual reading — 10 minutes

Give students a copy of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.  Give them time to read, or assign them to read it overnight.

5. Day two introduction — 15 minutes

Have students get their Appropriate Photo Charts out again and compare their answers to the SPJ Code of Ethics.  In their original discussion groups, check to see if any of their opinions changed.  Then, reconvene as a class to discuss together.

If time allows, feel free to ask students to look up the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics as well.  This Code is also very helpful when considering commonly-accepted ethical standards for photojournalism.

6. Class discussion — 5 minutes

Discuss with students: How do students’ rights change?  What do you know about the privacy rights of minors in the news? (Students will probably mention that minors who are arrested are often not named in the newspaper, etc.)

6. Examples — 25 minutes

Using a projector, show students many examples of controversial photos that have printed in newspapers throughout history (see possible list below).  Ask for students to discuss whether or not they think these photos should run in a newspaper today.

Possible questions to ask: Should dead bodies be allowed to print? What about people who aren’t dead in the photo, but died shortly after the photo was taken? Does it matter if the person is recognizable?  Does it matter if the story occurred locally or at a location far away?

List of possible controversial photos to show:

1862 Alexander Gardner, Dead Soldier Antietam

1863 Timothy O’Sullivan, Field Where General Reynolds Fell

1963 Malcolm Browne, the death of Thich Quang Duc

1968 Eddie Adams, Execution of a Viet Cong Guerrilla

1968 Boris Yaro, photo of RFK’s assassination

1971 John Filo, photo of Kent State shooting

1972 Nick Ut, photo of children fleeing Vietnam village

1993 Kevin Carter, photo of famine in Sudan

2001 Richard Drew, The Falling Man

2007 Alan Kim, photo of Virginia Tech shooting

7. More possible discussion items:

“To post or not to post:” What should a student paper do if an individual requests that a photo be removed from an online site or a social media account?

Should a student paper publish a picture with students breaking dress code or making rude gestures?

What about a picture with visible swear words in the background?

What about a picture of a streaker at a local sporting event? (If you’d like additional resources about this topic, in November 2011 the student newspaper at East Carolinian University published photos of a streaker at a home football game. Their decision was considered extremely controversial, and many newspapers wrote articles about the situation.  You can look up the situation for articles about the decision.)

8.  Photography assignment

Research a scheduled event in town (a sporting event, a meeting, a community event, etc).  Attend the event and take photos.  Select your ten best photos and submit them to your teacher in the teacher’s preferred method (email, uploaded to a central location, etc).

Note: This doesn’t really fit into today’s discussion of tragedy and ethics, BUT it will come into play when we talk about editing and composition soon.