Jeb Stuart, Rob Orrison, and a Media Ethics Case Study

AP Image
AP Photo by Steve Helber

An editorial in today’s Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star lauds a recent court decision to remove a portrait of Confederate cavalry commander Jeb Stuart from the Patrick County courtroom.

Accompanying the editorial online was a file photo of ECW’s own Rob Orrison leaning against a marble bust of Jeb Stuart. Rob is identified by name in the photo’s caption.

Problem is: Rob doesn’t support the removal of the painting from the courthouse.

“I have no idea why the Free Lance-Star used my photograph for this article,” Rob wrote on the newspaper’s website, reacting to the editorial. “Sad to see my image attached to an editorial piece that I do not agree with.”

For the record, Rob told me “I don’t agree with removing ANY historic figures from courthouses or court lawns, etc. It’s not a Confederate issue. For me, it’s a historic interpretation issue. I wouldn’t support the removal of any historic image or statue from a public space.” He told the Free Lance-Star as much, too.

The photo of Rob that the paper used was taken in April of last year by the Associated Press for a story they did on Rob’s many Civil War adventures during the sesquicentennial. In the photo, Rob poses by a bust of Stuart that’s on display in the Old House chambers in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

But just because the image has Jeb Stuart in it doesn’t mean it’s fitting for the editorial, Rob contends. “Surely the Ed Board could have found an image of JEB Stuart for their opinion piece,” he wrote on the paper’s website.

And, indeed, by late morning, the paper did find a photo of Stuart, swapping it in in place of Rob’s photo, which it removed. No photo accompanied the editorial in the paper’s print edition.

Legally, the use of the photo was perfectly okay. It was taken in a public place for use in public education (news), but beyond that, Rob even consented to the photo when it was taken. The paper has every right to pull the photo from its archives and run it again.

But are there ethical questions here? For instance, did the paper create (intentionally or not) an inappropriate context for the photo? Did the use of Rob’s name and image imply his agreement with the editorial?

Or maybe it was something else entirely—maybe a small, kind, quiet gesture from someone at the paper who knew Rob and used his photo because they thought they were actually doing something nice for him (a lot of people find that to be a really cool thrill, after all).

I am interested in what our readers have to say:  Do you think the Free Lance-Star‘s use of the photo was appropriate? Why/why not?

2 Responses to Jeb Stuart, Rob Orrison, and a Media Ethics Case Study

  1. There is an ethical question to be considered. The story was an editorial, an opinion, someone’s point of view. It’s logical to assume that any reference in the article, (unless otherwise stated) is of like mind. The photo could have been cropped or photoshopped or better yet, the ‘subject’ in the photo could have been consulted relative to the context. Association with any point of view should require consent. An oversight? I hope so. Individual rights have often been trampled in this hyper-PC world.

  2. More than anything else it seems like sloppy journalism. The story would have been well served by a photo of the Stuart portrait in question but they likely didn’t have one and grabbed what they did have. It is also confusing to read a story about a portrait and see a picture of someone with a statue. Since it is an opinion piece you are also attaching a photo of an individual to an editorial viewpoint they may or may not approve of. I suspect an earlier generation of newspapers, even smaller ones, would have had editors who would have sorted it all out but with the decline in newspaper circulation has come a decline in standards. And so you get this. Not so much unethical as unprofessional.

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