Is journalistic integrity possible?

The Dec. 4 front page photograph of the New York Post depicted a controversial photograph of a man, Ki-Suck Han, who was about to be hit by a subway train in New York after he was pushed onto the tracks after a
verbal argument.

Han died from the incident, and the photograph depicted his last moments alive. This photo instantly sparked controversy among the public and journalists alike,
even at SIUC.

“Publishing such a photo serves no purpose other than to be sensationalistic,” said William Babcock, a professor in the school of journalism. “This amounts to cheap, gutter-mongering journalism.”

This sentiment was shared by another field expert.

“Let’s just say it falls in a gray area,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. “There’s no one right answer. Different journalists see these questions differently, (but) I would not have run this picture.”

Students had varied opinions about the photograph.

Cheyenne Albrecht, a freshman from Peoria studying architecture, said a photo such as the Post’s should not have run, and a less graphic one should have been posted.

Alexis Greenberg, an undecided freshman from Olney, said the photo should not have run because Han’s family would see it, and it doesn’t depict the best final moments in someone’s life.

While it’s good to see some professionals and non-journalists frown on the incident, stories such as  this don’t sit well for someone looking at a future in journalism.

As journalists, we are taught to be public watchdogs. That is, we try to keep the public informed about important topics and protect them from content that is lacking news value and/or any sense of morality.

When something like this picture is posted, it means we failed at our jobs.

This is one of the first stories I have read that has made me question my professional field’s morality. Is this the level of professionalism I can expect in the real world?

If I get a job with a newspaper, big or small, would they ever run something like this?

Can I have integrity in this line of work, or do I have to give up everything I believe to still be
a journalist?

I would hope not.

I expect not.

A photograph such as this is an outrage to everything I stand for. It goes against everything I believe in and everything I’ve been taught about journalism.

Fortunately, it looks like most professionals also have the same mentality.

“(The Post) is a tabloid,” Yepsen said. “They have different values than more traditional journalists.”

Yepsen also said he shares different values from the ones the New York Post has, and he would not want to work there. He said his values would probably not allow him to be hired even if he wanted to work at there.

“The bar is set low for the New York Post,” Babcock said. “You can’t expect quality journalism from that publication. That said, even by their horribly low standards, this still
was a shocker.”

Babcock said photographs such as this hurt the integrity of journalists as a whole.

“Journalists purveying such photos make ambulance-chasing attorneys look good,” he said.

Even though the Post is a tabloid paper that thrives off of milking tragedy and does not resemble what real journalism is, this is low.

Tabloids are the journalism world’s “Jersey Shore,” as they offer cheap entertainment with very minimal substance.

Real journalists don’t do that. We don’t publish entertainment; we publish news.

We establish a level of integrity so whoever picks up our paper knows before they open it that we can be trusted for news.

Umar Abbasi, who photographed the incident, told media outlets he took pictures so the subway train could see the flash and notice Han because that’s all he could do in his position.

Was it possible for Abbasi to save Han? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Only Abbasi knows if he could have done something more. Did this photo have to be taken and handed in to be published?

I can’t speak on his behalf, and I won’t try.

But this isn’t the first time controversial pictures have appeared in newspapers.

In 1975, photographer Stanley Forman took a picture of a 2-year-old and her 19-year-old godmother falling from a broken fire escape. The child lived, but her godmother died from the fall.

In 1963, journalist Malcolm Browne took a photo of a Buddhist monk who burned himself alive in protest about the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnam government. Both of these pictures won the Pulitzer Prize.

Yet these photographs accomplished a greater good and justified the last moments of these people’s lives being immortalized.

Forman’s photo helped pave the way for states to mandate tougher fire safety codes because the image was visual proof of what could happen if shoddy fire escapes were not
managed properly.

Browne’s photo made the plight of the Buddhist monks become a world-wide issue, which put pressure on the South Vietnamese government to reform their ways and, in a way, honored the Buddhist monk who killed himself by having his cause be known and to open people’s eyes toward the struggles Buddhists in the region faced.

These photographs made these people’s last moments become a voice of change to try and better
the world.

The photo published in the New York Post accomplished nothing except profit through shock value.  It degrades journalism by making the public think journalists accept this kind of filth, and it degrades everything aspiring journalists are working to become — professionals.

Worse yet, it degrades the memory of this unfortunate man.

When it comes down to it, journalists are people, too. We all make mistakes, have judgment lapses whether moral or otherwise and try to do the best we can at what we love to do.

That does not excuse us from not doing our best to be public watchdogs. On the contrary, this is what motivates us to work our hardest. We try our best to be perfect, even though we know it’s nearly impossible, because there are people who read our papers and count on
us to be perfect.

The staff at the Daily Egyptian staff is no different.

We work hard to provide a great paper every weekday with as few mistakes as possible because this is our passion, and we strive to be perfect because it means a lot to us and to
our readers.

We do this while holding true to our values as soon-to-be professionals and as ethical people in general.

Is it possible for journalists, professional and otherwise, to keep their integrity in this field?

Absolutely.

It’s not always easy, but every journalist does it because we love this line of work.

All we can do now is look at this incident as an ethical lesson learned as well as a warning about what could happen if we lose the integrity we strive so hard to maintain. As journalists, it’s the only thing that separates us from the tabloids, and  it’s the only thing that makes our readers pick up our papers over theirs.

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