The ethics of the visual

Courtesy RomeneskoThe Richmond Times-Dispatch has fired the photographer who copied the cover of a Richmond alternative weekly paper for a story about a candy maker. The photo on the left was published in December by Style Weekly; the one on the right graced the cover of the Metro Business section of the Times-Dispatch a week ago. Managing editor Louise Suggs apologized to readers.

We learned that the photographer had seen the Style photo while at the candy company, and was told of the similarity, but submitted the picture anyway as original work. That is visual plagiarism and that is why we have dismissed the photographer.

…And we need to talk more about ethics in general. One question that arose was: Is there such a thing as visual plagiarism? Some reporters and editors were not familiar with photojournalists’ ethical standards, and we need to foster communications to increase understanding.

THIS IS ABOUT us” and our standards, a copy editor said during a newsroom discussion last week. He was right.

In the future, if anyone on our staff ever gets wind of something like this, we want it to be second nature to say, “Wait a minute! You can’t do that! We don’t do that!”

I think this was more about simple laziness than the p‑word. It certainly was blatant, whatever it was. But plagiarism is a loaded word, and where do we draw the ethical line? If the photographer here had used four pieces of candy, would it have been the same thing? Is there any arrangement of stacked candy that would’ve been acceptable?

There are degrees of copying, for sure, but we’re all creatively impacted by the things we encounter with our senses, and this is especially true with the visual. It happens all the time in the world of TV news. In fact, consultants bring tapes with them on station visits for people to watch and, hopefully, copy in terms of style and effect.

In an earlier editorial about the issue, Suggs wrote, “At the very least, credit should have been extended to Style for having the idea.” So it isn’t the picture; it’s the idea of the picture. That’s a slippery little sucker to quantify.

While I certainly don’t think photographers should go around doing what this idiot did, this is an extreme example. And the problem with our politically correct culture is that response to the extreme tends to become response to the norm. In a citizens media world, can we expect everybody to play by these rules? Copying is already widely accepted among bloggers, and that’s especially true of the visual. The image of the two covers above, for example, was copied from Romenesko’s blog/newsletter, which is fair use in a news sense. But what about conceptual ideas? Can those be protected?

And what happens when a newspaper photographer copies the style of an everyday Joe?

I agree with Ms. Suggs. These are all issue that need discussion.

(Thanks to Romenesko.)

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