AJR logo     

 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

De-Lovely Ombudsman   

Getty hires ex-Seattle Times photo director Cole Porter as its ethics watchdog.

By Kara Wedekind
Wedekind is an AJR editorial assistant.      

Just a few months ago, Cole Porter was a customer of Getty Images, searching its online photo gallery for the perfect shot for a Seattle Times story. Now Porter will become even more familiar with its Web site and photography: Getty Images has hired the Times' former director of photography to be its ombudsman.

Porter's role--his formal title is senior editorial advisor--is believed to be a photography industry first. Although some 40 news organizations have ombudsmen to address ethical issues, there has been no known equivalent dealing purely with pictures, according to the Organization of News Ombudsmen. Porter thinks that should change. "I don't see a difference in the fundamentals of sound reporting," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "Photographers provide visual reporting through images, writers with words. The expectations should be the same, fair and trustworthy."

When the Seattle-based company transformed itself in 2001 from a primarily commercial photography operation to a commercial and editorial enterprise, its managers created ethics policies for photographers and clients.

"There is a high level of interest in the establishment, evolution and maintenance of these policies," says Deb Trevino, Getty's spokeswoman. As editorial operations increased in volume and scope, Getty's leaders recognized the importance of having an independent voice within their organization to oversee ethics rules.

Their search for such a voice coincided with a rocky period at the Seattle Times. Early this year, the Times offered severance packages to staffers to stave off layoffs. Porter, 55, accepted the offer and retired from his "dream job" after 28 years at the paper.

Then Getty approached him. In Porter's new job, he'll enforce the firewall between Getty's editorial and commercial sides and facilitate ethics discussions in the organization and with its clients. He'll participate in employee orientations and make himself available as a resource to anyone in the company who needs a sounding board.

Porter feels photography requires a commitment to ethical nuances because of its instantaneous effect on the reader. "In a few seconds the impact of a photo is galvanized in a person's mind. This power carries with it enormous responsibility," Porter wrote. "It's easy to have a written set of ethical guidelines, harder to make the hard choices to follow them." The focus is "not so much the basics but the subtleties of imagery," Porter says.

With technological advances in digital photography, it has become easier for news organizations to obtain photos. But these advances also have created new ethical dilemmas: Photographs can be manipulated, and changes are difficult to detect. The Los Angeles Times fired staff photographer Brian Walski in April 2003 for creating a composite of two photographs he had taken moments apart in Iraq. In August 2003, the Charlotte Observer reprimanded and suspended staff photographer Patrick Schneider for darkening the backgrounds of three previously published photographs to dramatize his entry in a state contest. In 1994, Time magazine ignited a public furor when it altered a mug shot of O.J. Simpson.

"Getty's step would be kind of a clarion call to get the industry to think more about photographic ethical issues," says Kenny Irby, the Poynter Institute's visual journalism group leader. Irby says Porter "has an impeccable reputation in the industry as being a steadfast, ethical decision maker as well as a visual journalist."

John Long, ethics chairman of the National Press Photographers Association and a staff photographer at the Hartford Courant--one of Getty's customers--says newspapers "cannot afford to be publishing dishonest pictures." Because of Getty's non-news origins, Long looks more carefully at its photos, calling the company a "purveyor of pictures," while the "AP is a purveyor of journalism." Long says Porter is "a wonderful choice for that position" because he's known for being an excellent manager with a strong ethical foundation.

While Porter's role will be different from a traditional ombudsman's because Getty's audience is other news organizations, NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin says the "principle is accountability and transparency in editorial decisions" whether an ombudsman is working with journalists or the public.

Angela Gottschalk, a photo editor at the Seattle Times who worked with Porter for about 15 years, says he always valued newsroom discussion and encouraged different perspectives. "He had his rules, but he also wanted to give everyone a chance to be their creative selves," she says.

Porter intends to use his managerial style to create a shared sense of responsibility at Getty. Ethics are "not the duty of a single person at Getty Images," he says, "but a shared principle."