Wednesday, October 28, 2009


In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina people took every measure in order to survive. The flooded streets signaled abandoned stores, full of whatever stock had not floated away. It was common for people to raid stores in search of food or anything else they could find. The Associated Press ran a few stories that featured photos of those who took from local grocery or corner stores. One photo featured a black male treading through the water with a plastic bag full of groceries; the other portrayed two white people, waist high in the flood water, carrying groceries as well. The two photos are almost identical and if you were to look at them you would assume both the white pair and the single black male are doing the exact same thing. Wrong. In the text attached to both photos the black male is allegedly “looting” while the white people have simply “found” these groceries. Apparently the photos came from two different news sources who captioned them differently. Regardless, should the AP have altered both captions? What are some of the ethical implications here? You can click on the picture to see the images up close.

3 comments:

Meghan said...

This dilemma illustrates some of the problems with the various denotations and connotations of language that journalists have to always be aware of. As this case has shown, the simple exchange of one word can produce a completely different meaning. The fact that the photos featured people of different racial backgrounds doing exactly the same thing makes this an ethical issue. The use of the word "looting" becomes much more of a concern because it has a derogatory tone. The use of "found" takes the blame away from the white pair--it was just blind luck that they came across the groceries. "Loot" implies stealing, dishonesty, and corrupt intentions. I think the fact that the people are doing the exact same thing, yet described with such unequal terms is unethical in itself. It makes the situation worse that the black man is the one illustrated in a negative light; this plays into racial stereotypes, which causes obvious concerns. Would it have been any more ethical if the white people were the looters? I don't think so--at least not by much. The fact remains that they are doing the exact same thing. While it is wrong, I don't know whether AP should have changed the captions. Two different reporters/photojournalists described their interpretation of what was going on in the pictures. An AP reporter seems to have produced the one that uses "loot," and if no editor saw it as a problem before it was compared to the other photo, then that is the real issue. I think editors need to really question the use of strong language like the word "loot," especially in the caption of a picture, which should really speak for itself.

Chloe said...

I think this issue would be made worse if it had been the same reporter who wrote two very different captions for these similar photos. But because the captions were written by two different journalists it's hard to say if the journalist who described the black man as looting would or would not have done the same for the photo of the white couple. He very well could have perceived both as looting, but the journalist only wrote the caption for the photo of the black man. But nevertheless, the varied captions come off as blatantly racist. I have had qualms of my own when it comes to captions though. Often times I write stories that include pictures, but I do not write the captions. I have been disappointed sometimes by captions that I feel do not align with the message of my article, so maybe in the case of these photos the same thing happened. The captions could have very well been written by the editors and not the journalists.

Melissa said...

At first I was horrified by the discrepancy in captions. Then I read Chloe's point. Also, aren't AFP and AP different wire services? If they're different services I see no ethical situation, it seems like a bad coincidence. If the AP had two stories, one with a black person and one with a white person I hope they'd use words with similar connotations. That seems most ethical. However, from different wire services they must determine their own word usage. One seems much less forgiving, but so long as they use the same standards for all captions I see no problem