Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


June 17, 2007

Photoshopping the News

Photojournalists now have the technological resources to do pretty much whatever they want with their images. But what types of changes should be off-limits?

Adam Conner-Simons

Photoshop has joined the public lexicon as a verb, and everyone from bored Farkers to would-be MySpace tarts have become experts at manipulating photos to appear funnier and sexier. Most of these alterations are relatively insignificant and good-natured, and they don't pretend to be authentic. But what happens when Photoshopping enters the sphere of journalism?

Photographer Allen Detrich was fired from the Toledo Blade for altering images, including turning the top photo into the bottom one.
"Photos capture a moment of truth. As a print reporter, I might like to insert a colorful adjective in a quote, but I can't."—Andy Schotz of the Society of Professional Journalists

Photographer Allen Detrich was fired from the Toledo Blade for altering images, including turning the top photo into the bottom one.

Increasingly skeptical readers, aided by media-watchdog blogs and news-aggregators like Instapundit and Digg, have exposed several Photoshopping photojournalists lately. In April, Allen Detrich resigned from his position at The Toledo Blade after admitting to altering a photo (and, it was soon discovered, 78 others). Last fall, Lebanese photojournalist Adnan Hajj was fired from Reuters for adding more smoke and flares to photos of an Israeli attack on Beirut (BBC). And last year the Charlotte Observer's Patrick Schneider got the boot for manipulating the colors of numerous photos (PDN).

"A photo used to be a piece of paper with a bunch of deposits," John Long, the chairman of the Ethics & Standards Committee for the National Press Photographers Association (NPAA) and a former photographer for the Hartford Courant, tells Gelf. "Now it can be anything you want it to be."

While it's easy to come to the tidy conclusion that a photojournalist should never alter an image, the reality is less straightforward. Is any post-snap manipulation of a photo off-limits? Is adding something to a photo worse than subtracting? Detrich did both [PDF]: He inserted a basketball into a shot of two players in action, and he disposed of a superfluous pair of legs in the corner of a photo of a Little League baseball team. While it seems intuitively more offensive to insert a completely new object into a photo than to eliminate an element that adds nothing to the power of the photo, the photojournalists interviewed maintain that both instances deceive the public and cross the line of acceptable journalism.

Photographs are much more than pretty add-ons to text, these photojournalists say—images are news unto themselves and must be treated as such. "Photos capture a moment of truth," Andy Schotz, the chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, tells Gelf. "As a print reporter, I might like to insert a colorful adjective in a quote or clean up a mangled metaphor, but I can't."

The issue gets somewhat thornier when we deal with photos that deceive when unaltered. One Pulitzer-prize winning photo of the Kent State shootings appears—on first glance—to show a woman with a pole through her head. In that case, Schotz would leave the photo untouched, but concedes that the image warrants a caption to explain the situation. (Some unaltered photos—like this one of Paul Wolfowitz—are the photographic equivalent of cherry-picking quotes to make someone look bad and are looked down upon for obvious reasons.)

Schneider Photos

Patrick Schneider lost the Picture of the Year award from the North Carolina Press Photographers Association after it was revealed that he had turned the top photo into the bottom one.

In the 20 years since Adobe Photoshop debuted, the program and its competitors have dramatically changed how photographers view their art. For example, many regularly engage in "dodging and burning," an industry term that refers to manipulating a photo's exposure to make certain parts lighter or darker (by tinkering with levels of contrast, color saturation, or tonal range). Photojournalist Kenny Irby wrote in a recent Poynter Institute confessional essay that most photos require "basic toning and preparation to meet standards." Long said that most journalists do accept this process of regulating photos' brightness and clarity. He cautions, however, that such modification can cross the line from innocence and become unethical photo manipulation. In Schneider's case, the dishonesty of his photos was more apparent in some than others. Several of the journalists interviewed said that there are no specific rules for picking out manipulated photos. Fred Brown, vice-chair of the same SPJ Ethics Committee and a contributor to the Denver Post, tells Gelf that you must judge the photos on a case-by-case basis.

Another common form of alteration is "photo illustration," which refers to images (often magazine covers) that take creative license to digitally alter real people and situations. Many magazines, including GQ and Men's Fitness, regularly Photoshop covers to make their subjects look thinner, fatter—even more muscular. (ABC has a good roundup.) More journalistically-inclined publications usually admit to these alterations with small credits inside the magazine. (In)famous examples include Time's darkened OJ Simpson face in 1994 (Blogcritics) and its more recent cover of Ronald Reagan crying for the Republican Party (PopPhoto).

Brown views photo illustration as a more transparent form of photo manipulation. "Labeling doesn't justify [the manipulation]," he said, "but it at least lets the reader know that what they are seeing isn't the truth." The NPAA's Long accepts photo illustration as an improvement over overt manipulation, but thinks ambiguous examples (like the Reagan cover) should be discouraged in the field of journalism. "Illustrations must never look real or be mistaken for real photographs, period," he says. "In the context of news, if it's an illustration, it's got to look like an illustration."

While photojournalists and editors sort through the finer ethical points of photo manipulation, they would do well to keep their increasingly cynical readership updated on their current standards—or else risk their reputation. "More people are aware," Schotz says, "and more people are watching."

Related on the Web

Dartmouth College's list of infamously tampered photos throughout history.

Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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- Media
- posted on Jul 09, 07
Daniel Michelson

Fascinating article.

Article by Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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