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The Ethical Implications of the Stock Photo

Published on November 6, 2020, at 3:05 p.m.
by Tralene Hunston.

It is not uncommon for public relations practitioners and journalists alike to use stock photos to enhance and add depth to their written work. However, the ease with which stock photography is available does not negate a

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

publisher’s responsibility to ensure that visuals are selected appropriately and within ethical standards.

There are a variety of reasons why mass communicators utilize stock photography. The most commonly used

rationale for stock photography is that the stock images save time and money and add value to the written word. In fact, marketing insights reflect that articles with relevant imagery receive 94% more views when compared to articles without and that relevant visuals can improve recall up to 65%.

Ethical implications
Sometimes, the use of stock photos and images within the public domain can bring about ethical concerns, particularly when those images contain people.

A political advertisement for the Biden presidential campaign used an image that contained now-retired Army Lt. Gen. Sean Macfarland. The use of Macfarland’s photograph in a political campaign prompted him to address his concerns on social media. Macfarland recognized that his image — he was in his military uniform and had previously made Time Magazine’s The 100 Most Influential People — could make it appear as if he was endorsing a political candidate.

Unfortunately, this is not the only recent concern with the use of a stock photo.

On Oct. 3, 2020, the Marine Corps Times published an article that shared the concerns of an anonymous Marine facing potential removal from the Marine Corps due to her failure to meet Marine Corps weight standards postpartum.

The stock photo selected to accompany the article contained the image of Marine Corps Sgt. Bethany Seger, holding her child in her arms. This stock photo displayed both parties with a frontal facing image, deeming each individual as recognizable.

Seger was at work when she received messages from several friends, alerting her that the Marine Corps Times had published her image with an article and that she should take a closer look.

“I first saw the photo and then the title. I felt confused, that perhaps I said something that was taken out of context. After reading the article, I grew concerned,” Seger said. “Her (anonymous Marine) opinions are absolutely not how I feel about my job, the Marine Corps or how I’ve been treated.”

Like Macfarland, Seger understood that her image alongside an article or campaign implies endorsement. Seger was concerned about potential negative ramifications from her military unit. She also had to deal with her picture being associated with the growing misogynistic comments from various veterans, as the article quickly made its way across social media platforms.

“My peers and supervisors read the Marine Corps Times. I worried they would see my image with that article, then believe that was me in the article. That I may get in trouble for saying negative things about the Marine Corps to a publication,” Seger said. “It still bothers me. I’m still trying to work on getting the photo taken down (at the time of this interview).”

Best practices
It is unlikely that there was nefarious intent behind the use of Macfarland and Seger’s images. Still, the selection of those specific photos did bring up concern and potentially hurt people. There are practices that those in mass communication fields can and should implement to avoid ethical implications when using stock photos.

Marlene Neill, associate professor at Baylor University and PRSA Fellow, provided her advice for mass communicators who select stock or public domain imagery.

“You have to be careful about using any type of file footage, whether it be a photo or a video, because it can put someone unrelated to the story in a negative light,” Neill said. “We need to be aware of the photos that we are using and be selective about our choices, ensuring that the visual is related and pertinent.”

Neill also discussed the importance of ensuring that mass communicators be trained not just in their respective positions, but also in various mass communication entities.

“It is important that mass communicators be trained in media ethics so that they can be aware and thinking of these issues in advance,” Neill said. “Journalists and PR practitioners should be familiar with ethical principles, like media law and photography ethics.

With the understanding of ethical principles, practitioners are more likely to make sound judgments when selecting the images to pair with their stories.

Diversity and inclusion
Another lesser-known and discussed ethical issue concerning stock photos is the lack of diversity within the subjects portrayed.

Dr. Jinx Broussard

Jinx Broussard, endowed memorial professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, shared her advice on developing change and increasing diversity and inclusion within stock photography.

“Encourage organizations, such as PRSANational Association of Black Journalists and media organizations, to strongly encourage entities to include more stock photos of BIPOC,” Broussard said. “Changing the mindsets of those who produce stock photos requires awareness and the encouragement of organizations.”

Representation matters and is especially crucial in the persuasive field of mass communication. When people view portrayals of themselves in the media, it presents an opportunity to shape how they see themselves and how others see them. This sentiment affirms stock images’ need to reflect better the world by including minority communities in chosen imagery. This blog post, written by InfoSecSherpa, shares a collection of diverse stock images, including BIPOC, religious and differently abled communities.

Final thoughts
Both Broussard and Neill shared recommendations for stock photography alternatives, enabling creativity and ensuring that PR practitioners would not overlook ethical concerns.

“Make sure your message and your vehicle align with the audience you’re trying to reach with your particular public,” Broussard recommended. “With that, I encourage students to go out and take their own photographs. There is no substitution for real photos to connect with their audiences.”

Likewise, Neill stated, “We need to put some thought into the implications of the visuals we use. Creators have unlimited options, and instead of taking an unrelated photo, they can create something graphically that would be original and relevant.”

Mass communicators have a responsibility to communicate with their publics ethically and empathetically. Ideally, a public relations practitioner’s career would be grounded by ethics training and an understanding of the magnitude of mass communication. Establishing and maintaining these characteristics will enable practitioners to maintain positive relationships with their publics.

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