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Published:April 30th, 2007 14:11 EST
In Photojournalism Today, Credibility is the Name of the Game

In Photojournalism Today, Credibility is the Name of the Game

By Julie Whiteman

As long as photography has existed, so has the issue of manipulation of photos in the news. Whether a photographer purposely poses a shot, becomes part of the action, or uses a program like Photoshop to add more lights on a Christmas tree, or more blue hair on a clown, if the photographer causes a moment in time to look different than it would have if he or she was not present, the photo is not true. This is turning into an enormous problem of loss of credibility for photojournalists. Programs like Photoshop can be fun when you’re cropping Brad Pitt in a photo with you at the beach, it can be helpful when touching up blemishes on your niece’s senior portrait, but when it comes to hard news, it can create real problems with integrity, authenticity, and most importantly, credibility. Some even go so far to say that using different lenses, filters, and angles can be considered manipulation (cite). But I would argue that these things are all part of the “craft” of photography (cite). 

There are so many helpful tools that can also be harmful if used in certain ways at certain times. So how do photojournalists know the limits and how are these limits enforced? This paper will explore this issue, past, present, and future, and hopefully give some insight into the confusing world of photojournalism.

In years past, there have been many incidents of unethical digital manipulation that have been brought into the public eye. As far back as 1982, when the cover of National Geographic magically moved the pyramids closer to one another than they actually are for a more attractive cover. Or in 1994, the famous comparison of the O.J. Simpson covers of Newsweek and TIME magazines in which TIME made Simpson’s face look much darker than the photo actually was and also darkened the edges to give it a “sinister” look. However, only three years later, the script was flipped when Newsweek and TIME both ran the same front page story of Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey, parents of septuplets. In this case, Newsweek totally fabricated a whole new set of teeth for Bobbi. The Daily News faked two cover photos, one of Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro shaking hands in New York in November of 2000, and one of Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush debating in February of 2003, which they never did (Barth). And these are only some of the incidents that have happened, and probably do not even come close to the number that have not been caught. And now for the two most recent cases, I would like to go a little more in depth about exactly what happened.

We will start with March of 2003 when Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski combined two similar photos of an Iraqi soldier and a crowd of civilians, to make one, better looking, but not real, image. An employee at another newspaper, the Courant, noticed Walski’s handiwork and he was fired immediately. He confessed his wrong-doing on the spot and took his punishment humbly. An apology was made in which Walski said it had been “an extremely hot and stressful day, but I offer no excuses here…I have tarnished the reputation” of the Los Angeles Times, the Tribune company and “especially the very talented and extremely dedicated photographers and picture editors that have made my four-and-a-half years at the Times a true quality experience. I have always maintained the highest ethical standards throughout my career and cannot truly explain my complete breakdown of judgment at this time. That will only come in the many sleepless nights that are ahead” (Van Riper). Kind of makes you want to say, “Oh poor guy,” and it seems like he was truly sorry, but we must remember what incredible implications these “slip-ups” cause for the world of journalism.

So what really happened? Why did he do it? There are lots of reasons a photographer may feel the urge to manipulate a photo. Another LA Times photographer said “When I saw him I really did not recognize him. He was sunburned, had not eaten in days, nor slept in 36 hours; his clothes were filthy, his beard—all over the place. And he smelled like a goat” (Van Riper). He was overworked. One can only imagine what the life of a war photographer could be like. Many photographers all but sacrifice their lives to tell the stories and realities that only pictures can tell. Just the things they have seen, alone, are probably enough for a little mental instability. On top of this, one of the main issues today is the fact that because of digital cameras, laptops, and wireless internet, photographers are able to transmit images directly from the site at which they are working, to their editors’ desks, and the editors can immediately post the images online for the entire world to see. This builds up a time-pressure factor that is greater than in previous years and also requires less accountability on the photographer’s part (Van Riper).

One other reason some photographers may manipulate photography is “probably due to the lust for the most sensational-looking image [and photographers] will break the rules of the profession to cash in” (Perlmutter). But what are these “rules of the profession”? We will talk about this a little later. We do not know Walski’s reasons for what he did, and it seems for the most part, neither does he. Maybe it was a combination of things. But I think what Frank Van Riper had to say in his article entitled “Manipulating Truth, Losing Credibility” pretty much sums up the issue of this whole paper: “What makes Walski’s action so tragic has very little to do with what he did to his picture, but a hell of a lot to do with the fragile currency in which all reputable journalists trade: their credibility.” The ‘cockroach theory of news,’ as Poynter Institute’s website calls it, “if you see one, there are a hundred” (Van Riper). This type of issue has also been a recognized as a problem with bloggers too. ““Their line is basically that if one freelance photographer alters a photo, then everything Israel does must be justified. Or if one of the sentences that Dan Rather once uttered wasn’t correct, then the media is corrupt and Dan Rather’s whole career is rotten to the core,” says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations” (Farhi). Sad but true. Just like any relationship, when trust is broken, more things are questioned and it is harder and harder to gain back trust when the same problem keeps reoccurring. These isolated incidents threaten the any trust that the reader may have had in the media.

Let us move now to one of the most recent incidents of manipulation. Award-winning photojournalist Susan Meiselas, in an article written by Mike Viera, said “[Ethical] decisions are based on properly representing the people and situations encountered…and accurately bring[ing] forth the voices of those who most often go unheard” (Viera). She takes war and war photography very seriously, as any human being should. The National Press Photographer’s Code of Ethics, which we will talk about in a minute, says to “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of tragedy” (NPPA). Just a few months ago in September, a Lebanese freelance photographer by the name of Adnan Hajj decided to not only break that rule, but many others when he used a Photoshop tool to create more smoke in a picture he had taken of an Israeli air strike on Beirut (Aspan). To some this may not seem like a big deal but other than the obvious threat to credibility we have been talking about, to me, this incident of manipulation was disrespectful to the victims and families of victims who died in that air strike. It seems as though the need to create an interesting photo to look at, took priority over the reality of the seriousness of this incident, and in effect, upset many people all around the world. And again, it is these types of situations that make the public more wary about all images they see.

The manipulation of this photo was found through a blog site. Because of the amount of manipulation in the media that has been exposed, bloggers such as Charles Johnson have risen to the occasion and even gone so far as to construct sites such as “Little Green Footballs” to hold not only the media, but also the government, accountable for their actions and misconceptions. “My main take is that political correctness has kept a lot of the hard truth from being spread by the mainstream media,” says Johnson. These sites are growing in popularity and are starting to be the watch dogs for the public. “Little Green Footballs” is estimated to receive approximately 100,000 visitors a day. It was on this site that Mike Thorson gave his alert that the photo taken by Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj for LIFE magazine, seemed to have been digitally manipulated. Sure enough it was, and Hajj was fired (Farhi).

These sites can be important and helpful in helping to hold photojournalists accountable for their work and also in finding mistakes. They also give a place where the common man can make his voice heard about such issues. However, they are just that: common people and all people can make mistakes. There have been a few instances where photographs were thought to have been manipulated but it turns out they really were not. For example, a photograph taken by Jim Wilson for the Times pictured a woman entertaining troops in Iraq but the cord to her microphone just seemed to disappear in mid-air. The photograph had not been manipulated, the photographer had simply been shooting on a low shutter speed and the cord was moving at the point in time that he snapped the shot so it was blurred. But since the Reuters incident was so recent, the Times received so many calls about the photo that the photographer even wrote up and published a description of how the photo was taken and why it looked the way it did. I am sure he understood why all the questions came up, but he probably was not happy with his credibility being questioned. Nevertheless, these mishaps must also happen in order for the public to realize that even though they can be helpful at times, they are not the experts and should strive to place blame with discretion.

So back to those rules we were talking about earlier. What rules do photojournalists follow and why do they seem to be broken so often? Well, the main Code of Ethics that photojournalists follow is the National Press Photographer’s Association Code mentioned before. This is a list of general rules and suggestions for photojournalists to follow so that they may be the best photojournalists they can possibly be. I feel the purpose of this code can be summed up in part of its preamble:

Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated. This code is intended to promote the highest quality in all forms of photojournalism and to strengthen public confidence in the profession. It is also meant to serve as an educational tool both for those who practice and for those who appreciate photojournalism.” (NPPA).

There are also other codes of ethics such as The Universal Photographic Digital Imaging Guidelines (UPDIG). This is a fairly new set of guidelines written by the “UPDIG Working Group, an ad-hoc industry consortium” (UPDIG) with representatives from all around the globe. These guidelines are much more specific with suggestions for things such as monitor calibration, file formats, and resolution but UPDIG has three main goals:

  • “Digital images should look the same as they transfer between devices, platforms and vendors.
  • Digital images should be prepared in the correct resolution, at the correct size, for the device(s) on which they will be viewed or printed.
  • Digital images should have metadata embedded that conforms to the IPTC standards, thereby making the images searchable, providing usage and contact information, and stating their creators or copyright owners” (UPDIG).

These guidelines would help to standardize the technical issues of photos and therefore make it easier to detect digital manipulation.

Along with these guidelines and codes, most newspapers seem to have policies they like to adhere to, all differing to the individual newspaper and the people who wrote the codes. As far as specific rules for digital manipulation, it seems that most, but not all newspapers go by the general rule that they will not digitally alter a photo beyond general techniques that could be performed in a traditional photography darkroom. For the Sarasota Herald-Tribune this includes dodging, burning, and correction of technical defects such as dust spots or color shifts (Irby). This is true for most newsrooms that use the general darkroom rule. Many newsrooms will even require photographers who use tools such as the “cloning tool” or “rubber stamp” to remove dust spots or imperfections, to indicate to their editors exactly where they used the tools on the photo.

However, another problem is that of the fine line drawn between newspapers and magazines. Many of the manipulations we talked about before were on the covers of news magazines. So does that make it ok? Well in an article by Kenny Irby, Visual Group Leader at Poynter Institute, he addressed the issue by asking representatives from four magazines to respond to questions about the digital manipulation used on their front covers. It seems that the general consensus was that most magazines use a fair amount of manipulation on their front covers since their covers need to be a little more commercial than journalistic for advertising purposes, but they label these covers as a “photo illustration” (Irby). Joe Zeff, Principal of Joe Zeff Design, Inc. says that the decision to crop or alter a photo on a cover is most often driven by the fact that type must be put all around the image (Irby). Hillary Raskin, Deputy Photo Editor of TIME, says that “covers originate with a concept, and so are often manipulated (Irby). 

Most magazines said that these “photo illustrations” are much less likely to be found on the inside of their magazines. One might argue that these photo illustrations desensitize readers, in some ways, to manipulations in real, documentary news photographs and add more pressure to create the “beautiful image” instead of the most truthful one. I think news magazines may be falling closer and closer to the “pop magazine” side when maybe they should be sticking to the journalistic path and NPPA ethics. Many readers simply do not care or have feelings or opinions about what they are seeing. But for the ones that do, they simply want truth, and that is the first rule of any journalistic code of ethics: to seek truth and report it.

Many have compared a photograph to a direct quote, and compared the decision to manipulate a photo to the decision to correct grammar in a direct quote. You just should not do it. In 1994, the Committee for New Standards for Photographic Reproduction at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University proposed a symbol that would act as quotation marks of a photo to alert readers to what they were seeing (Rosen). The symbol is a simple circle surrounded by a square and would indicate that “the image is a conventional lens-based photograph” (New Standards). There would also be a symbol standing for “not a lens” that basically looks like the original symbol with a slash through it. This symbol would mean that the “alteration of the photograph goes beyond accepted conventional darkroom techniques” (New Standards). This would also be accompanied with an explanation of the changes made to the photo if the reader was interested in knowing what exactly had been done to the photo (New Standards).

I believe this would be the best option and this is why: the software and tools we have available to use these days is incredible and gives us endless possibilities to the creativeness that can be added to the “art” side of the photo. However, these tools have caused loss of credibility, a big deal, because of the way they have been used. With the use of these symbols, I believe photojournalists would feel more freedom to make the image look its best without worrying about whether they have crossed any lines since everything they have done to the photo would be explained to the readers who were concerned. The symbols could be used in “newspapers, magazines, and books of a journalistic or documentary nature (or in the portions of such publications that are of such nature; the sensationalist media would presumably exclude themselves)” (New Standards).

As with any new practice, at first newspapers would more than likely get calls about the symbols and explanations. Even if the newspaper provided a very nicely written explanation about why the symbols and explanations were being used, people would still call in to complain for any of a thousand reasons. But after time, I think most readers would become accustomed to it and appreciate the honesty of it. If we are going to manipulate photos, let’s make it known. I think most photojournalists are photojournalists because they respect the truth in a photo. The goal of a photojournalist is to capture a moment in time exactly how it is. Sure when you get back to the office, you clean it up of spots and make minor adjustments, but as for the content of the photo, it is the truth in it that makes a photojournalist proud of his or her work. The pride they can take in sharing that moment with others and saying “I was there and I took that.” A real photojournalist values their work and respects the objective of the news to inform the public of things going on around them that they may not have been aware of. Sometimes a journalist could write a thousand words, but one picture could say it all, and have an impact that no words could even describe. Photojournalists hold a huge responsibility and commitment to the people who will see and are affected by the photos they take. It is important that they understand this and uphold that pride, respect, and dignity through the way they work. In the words of John Long, former NPPA president, “My own ethical choices have been on a small scale and these come up daily…” (Long). Credibility is the key. Truth is the answer. 


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