The Falling Man, Richard Drew

Sept. 11, 2001 was the most photographed and videotaped day in history. From that day came images we will never forget; this is an image [The Falling Man] we will never forget.

On Sept. 12, 2001, the Falling Man became one of the most controversial photos to come from that day. Some branded it not only distasteful, but exploitative. Richard Drew, a photographer for the Associated Press snapped the image along with many others of the people who jumped from the highest floors of the Twin Towers. Drew took his photos back to AP headquarters and chose this as the one he liked best, and that was the image that appeared in papers the next day.

Broadcasters chose not to run footage of people jumping, but did show clips like this one (9:35 in the doc).

The New York Times ran the Falling Man photo on page 7. The Morning Call, a mid-size daily in Pennsylvania ran it the largest; a half-page colour vertical on the back page of the front section. The papers that published this photo on Sept 12 never published it in their pages again and there was no follow up, with the exception of a piece in the Globe and Mail and one in Esquire magazine. After that, it just disappeared.

After Richard Drew chose this photo as his favourite and the photo went out on the wires, editors across North America were faced with a choice. Would they select this photo as a depiction of the news events that happened that day? What possible framework of ethical reasoning could they have used? We’ve consulted some famous thinkers to weigh in on the issue.


- For Aristotle there are two kinds of virtue: intellectual virtue and moral virtue
- It is moral virtue that we are concerned about here and moral virtue, unlike intellectual virtue, cannot be taught
- It is not natural but comes through habit and repetitive practice
- Humans have the potential to be virtuous but it is only though consistently making virtuous choices that one become virtuous: learn by doing
- You do not become brave by thinking about being brave - you become brave by acting courageously
- For Aristotle virtues are not passions (anger, love) or faculties (capacities to feel passions), they are states of character (disposition to behave in a certain way) since they involve choice
- The choice to be good is being good itself
- There is no set code of conduct for being virtuous, instead, for Aristotle, virtue is about finding the mean between extreme and deficiency. For example, with self worth, the deficit would be low self-esteem, the excess would be inflated vanity and the mean would be a reasonable sense of self pride
- This also relates to having an appropriate relationship with pain and pleasure through striving for temperance and not experiencing pleasure at gluttony etc.
- It is not always possible to find a mean in an action and some actions are always vices such as murder, theft and rape
- Some extremes are closer to the mean that others (rashness is closer to courage than cowardice) and Aristotle advises avoiding the extreme that is furthest from the mean
- For Aristotle, virtuous people behave correctly because it is virtuous; they are self-aware and their behavior is not accidental, it is part of a pattern of virtuous conduct
Using Aristotelian principles as an editor:
- If you want to be an ethical journalist you must act ethically and be aware of what motivates your choices
- Regarding the photo of the falling man, one could apply a framework of deficiency and excess to make the decision
- In this case the two extremes could be that running the photo might be seen to be sensationalist, while not running the photo might be viewed as paternalistic
- Journalists should not exploit situations but nor should they seek to protect the public when deciding what is news
- So if we are to look at this from an Aristotelian perspective, what is the mean between these extremes?
- Sensationalism is a closer extreme to the mean of informing the public than is paternalism
- People were jumping off the World Trade Centre and while it is only one part of the larger story of that day, it did occur and should be noted in a way that conveys truthfully to the public the horror of that situation
- For broadcast, having the clip of the distressed woman saying that people were jumping is enough, without showing the visuals because the distress in her voice coupled with the facts sufficiently depicts the situation without sensationalism
- For print, you cannot have the emotion of a voice clip so the photo should be printed to capture the intensity of this extreme act, but the photo should not be run on the fist page of a publication because that could be sensationalizing the event - instead it should be run on an inside page perhaps with some sort of warning beforehand

Immanuel Kant

Kant is primarily concerned with duty. According to his theories, one has a duty to follow universalized principles - that is, principles that you would wish to be universal. This, to Kant, is moral.
- So when it comes to applying this, there are three things to remember:
- 1) actions are moral if and only if they are done for the sake of morality along (this means no other motives)
- 2) the moral quality of an action is not judged according to consequences, but only according to the motive behind it (this would be your duty)
- 3) actions can only be moral if they are done out of respect for moral law (upholding your duty) and not for any other motive (personal desire, for example)
- This had to be applicable in all situations since consequences or interests or circumstances cannot be considered.

Kant and news selection:
Using his reasoning, news is what keeps the public informed and as a news person it’s your duty to convey the truth.
So if you’re a journalist, your universalized principle would be the belief that public should always be informed. To apply the code of journalism ethics, you’d believe in seeking truth and reporting it as a universal principle.

Keeping the public informed is reporting the truth of what happened in any situation (remember: because this is Kant’s advice it has to be all situations and the nature of the situation cannot be considered). This would be your duty as a journalist.

So, if an editor is going to select stories to be part of the news, the ones selected would be the stories that provide the essential information for keeping the public informed. When it comes to the content, that content would reflect the truth of what happened; no omissions of crucial facts to understanding the story, no embellishment and no consideration of harm.

When it comes to selection of photos, one would select the photos that most truthfully depict what happened during that event to keep the public informed. So, the Falling Man would appear, and it wouldn’t be hidden. Here is why:

1) It is an accurate depiction of an aspect of what happened that day (people died because they were on the planes, people died because the tower collapsed, people died because they jumped; images were shown of the plane and of the tower coming down, why not of the jumpers?)

2) It is a truthful depiction of the desperation and horror people were faced with that day

Since your duty would be to keep the public informed, as new information about 9/11 jumpers came up, the photo would continue to be in the news.

There would be no consideration of the outcome of publishing the photo. One wouldn’t consider the family seeing the images as harming them, identity, etc. Also other ethical principles that journalists consider like minimizing harm don't work in Kant’s framework because you would be considering consequences and Kant doesn’t allow for that.

John Stuart Mill

How do you judge moral right and wrong? John Stuart Mill, in his 1861 book Utilitarianism, argues that actions are good if they promote “the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people and wrong when they produce the reverse of happiness.”

Mill defines happiness as pleasure and the absence of pain. He calls this the Greatest Happiness Principle. Essentially, anytime you make a decision you must ask yourself: Does this enhance the greater good? Not just one person’s happiness.

In this sense, the individual guided by Mill’s framework is impartial. Precisely because the interests of everyone are taken into consideration and actions taken are based on the interests that are as close to the interests of the whole as possible.

But the argument is not that simple.

Mill also argues that one pleasure can be more valuable than another. That is to say, there are higher and lower pleasures and Mill believed that if a person has experienced two pleasures, they would choose the so-called higher pleasure, even if they knew that it would cause suffering.

For example, Mill says, “a person will not choose to become an animal, an educated person will not choose to become ignorant, even if it causes him some discomfort.” Mill admits that while people who employ these higher pleasures are less content, they have a deeper sense of the world and would never want to sink to the level of the ignorant fool.

The reason? Pride, according to Mill. So, happiness is the goal but that happiness can be imperfect because as Mill writes, “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”

Mill also argues that utilitarianism is inherent - and because it comes naturally to us, society would readily accept its standards.

Mill is not concerned with the motive, but the outcome of an action.

Applying Mill's Theory:
If a news editor were to apply Mill’s theory to his/her decision-making - that actions are good if they create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, whether or not some discomfort may be caused - the news editor would likely broadcast the photograph of the falling man.

The photograph would be considered newsworthy because the image shows the extent of the desperation of the people involved. And the audience needs this detail of the jumpers to better understand what happened that day. Yes, some people may say it is horrific, distasteful and unnecessary but most would say the photo needs to be shown so the greatest amount of people will understand the gravity of 9/11.

But there are some hiccups. If you are always considering what makes most people happy, you’re inevitably leaving others out of the equation. You’re not protecting individual rights.

Furthermore, not everything can be measured. Since you can’t actually measure the happiness of the audience, or the pain of the one family who may be the daughter, mother, sister of a jumper that can be identified in the photograph, it's difficult to say what the average utility would actually be. What if the grief of that one family outweighs the news value for the rest of the public?

And you cannot calculate the consequences of your actions - the consequences related to the public interest, the credibility of the news media, whether it would harm individuals. You cannot make judgements based only on the hypothetical outcome.

Utilitarianism is often said to be the theory that goes naturally with today’s ethics standards in relation to journalism. Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle, it seems, is really another way of saying “minimize harm.”

That said, it seems that in using this framework, the news editor would agonize for a long time over the news value of the photograph before making the decision because s/he would be questioning the value of different pleasures, trying to privilege one over the other and trying to make an impossible calculation.

John Rawls

Rawls says to get at the two basic or essential principles of justice, we must reason from what he calls the original position – or, behind the veil of ignorance.
In his framework, representatives reasoning from this state, would come to the basic principles of justice.
They would not know basic facts about themselves (or who they are representing) such as sex, age, gender, class, race, religion, natural abilities such as strength or intelligence.
The veil of ignorance is a sort of perfect or idealized objectivity.
They do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and must evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations.
From behind the veil of ignorance, Rawls says the representatives would agree on two basic principles:
1. The principle of equal liberty – no one would be disadvantaged by race, gender, class - all members of society would have equal freedom to pursue their goals
2. The difference principle - this permits social and economic inequalities only if they are to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society
Rawls is critical of utilitarianism as it creates only a net benefit but does not ensure that the least advantaged members of society benefit.
Applying Rawls’s theoretical framework to the issue of news judgment... you would attempt to reason from behind the veil of ignorance, as if you had no idea what role you played or what hand you’d been dealt in society and you would consider the effect of the decision on the least advantaged member of society.
In the example of the falling man, it’s arguable that the least advantaged members would be the family of the person in the photo or families or other people who had lost loved ones in a similar circumstance. Running the photo, although it may produce a net benefit to society by informing people of the true nature of what happened that day, it could be argued would not benefit them as it would invade their privacy and cause them pain.
It’s possible that this framework works better with other examples – for instance, investigative journalism that turns up some sort of government or corporate mismanagement that has an adverse impact on a disadvantaged group of society.

Stephen Ward
Ward’s principles:

1) Democracy needs intelligent news selection
-the media shouldn’t be distracted by sensational events; or its audience is in trouble
-focus/emphasis on essential issues or audience will be uninformed on critical issues that define future
-assessment of what is really important
-journalists should keep questioning news selection
-journalists should not be “held hostage” to alleged or insignificant events

2) Go hard on manipulators
-selection guided by who is seeking attention and why
-is there an agenda? is this person toying with reporters?
-editors have the right to work against a manipulator’s plan

3) Swim against the flow by doing good journalism
When a news event is too big to ignore…
- Practice proportionality (reduce quantity and prominence of a low-quality story)
- Relentlessly provide context (don’t narrow focus by following every move)
- Be a catalyst for informed discussion (use events to spark more intelligent discussion)

For your own consideration of news judgment, this is what Richard Drew said about his photo:
"This is a very important part of the story. It wasn't just a building falling down, there were people involved in this and I think that is why it's an important picture. I didn't capture this person's death. I captured part of his life. This is what he decided to do and I think I preserved that,"


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