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Photoshop Ethics in Journalism

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The Fine Line Between Art and Truth
Photo manipulation has been around for over a century, but the recent focus on Photoshop has caused news photography to be looked at in a new light. As a result, pictures that have been manipulated have been called into question, and therefore have had a significant effect on the credibility of various forms of print media. In this new age of media, where circulation is down and corporations are cutting employees, credibility is a much talked about commodity. Although photo manipulation has a great effect on the credibility of media, it should be considered an art form and given a certain amount of freedom.
To accurately understand the argument, the history of pre-Photoshop manipulation opens the paper, followed by modern manipulation and the backlash it has caused, what credibility is, how newspapers are addressing photo manipulation, and how modern manipulation should be handled and the standards that it is held to.
Photoshop is a tool that has made the practice of photo manipulation both easy and affordable. But what is photo manipulation? It is simply altering an original image, taking the negative or digital image and changing it in some way. This practice has always been common, as photographers have enhanced lighting or used filters to eliminate a certain color. However, in the context of this paper most of the examples addressed deal with the current, narrower view of photo manipulation. According to the 2006 edition of Merriam Webster, photo manipulation is defined as “the application of image editing techniques to photographs in order to create an illusion or deception (in contrast to mere enhancement or correction), through analog or digital means.” Historically this definition was much more broad, however, the current media environment has created a very concrete definition in an attempt to prevent confusion about what is acceptable.
Haney Farid, a professor and researcher at Dartmouth University, has developed algorithms for image analysis. He is an expert in the field of digital forensics and tampering, and in dozens of other image-based fields. His expertise has enabled him to compile a website called “Photo Tampering Throughout History”, and I used his data and background information for all of my history, and every image attached below.
Photo manipulation is not a new thing in any sense; its reach extends back to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. There is an iconic lithograph of President Lincoln, in which he is standing with a globe, a pen and parchment (Figure 1). Yet, the photo is actually a composite of Lincoln’s head and southern politician John Calhoun’s body. This is the first of many famous photos that have been manipulated. To understand the full extent of photo manipulation in history, I will go in depth on many famous cases.
Figure 1: Abraham Lincoln, 1860

In the 1860s two other major photo manipulations occurred. The best and most extensive of the two is a war photo of General Ulysses S. Grant, which consists of 3 separate photos that were merged together (Figure 2). The first photo was a portrait of the general, the second of him astride his horse, and the third was a shot of a battlefield. The resultant image was a marvelous shot of Grant, astride a horse with a battle raging on behind him. The other photo was one of General Sherman, posing with his generals (Figure 3). The final shot was a composite in which an absent general, Francis P. Blair, was added to photograph.
Figure 2: Ulysses S. Grant, 1860

Figure 3: General Sherman,1865

Throughout the 1900s there were many more instances of photos being manipulated before the invention and implementation of Photoshop. The predominate purpose of photo manipulation in the early 20th century was for famous leaders to either add or purge people from their photos. Famous examples of this practice include: Stalin eliminating his enemies in photos (Figure 4); Mao tse-Tung had men removed from shots who had fallen out of favor (Figure 5), and Hitler did the same, exterminating members of his party from photographs when they fell out of favor (Figure 6). In addition, William Mackenzie who was running for prime minister in England, had King George IV removed from a shot of him and Queen Elizabeth for a campaign poster in which he wanted to seem powerful and close to the queen. (Figure 7)
Figure 4: Stalin, 1930

Figure 5: Mao Tse-tung, 1936

Figure 6: Adolf Hitler, 1937

Figure 7: Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, 1939

One of the most shocking examples of pre-Photoshop manipulation was the John Filo photograph, which won a Pulitzer Prize in news photography. It is the photograph of the 1970 shooting at Kent State University where the National Guard shot into a group of student protestors (Figure 8). The picture is of a young woman, Mary Anne Vecchio, screaming as she kneels next to the body of Jeffery Miller. In the original photo, there is a pole coming out of her head. This pole is a part of a fence that runs behind all the students in the shot. But the photographer took out the fence post behind her head before it was published in Time magazine.
Figure 8: Photograph by John Filo, Pulitzer Prize 1970

This provokes the question, why are these not a big deal? Why are they still in textbooks? Why was the Pulitzer Prize not revoked? Are these types of photo manipulation ethical, or did these photographers step over this invisible line? When these manipulations were revealed, did they create a backlash? Is removing a fence post, a sign, or a power line okay? What about removing or adding people from photos? Where do we draw the line? This question of ethics in photography is one that is addressed in newsrooms across the countries. Are highlighting photos so the lighting is more dramatic, or using a filter to distort color going too far? This string of questions defines photojournalism today, since newspapers are incredibly worried about their credibility and do not want a huge scandal to mar their reputation. But what is credibility, and how does it relate to news?
The Merriam Webster definition of credibility is “the quality or power of inspiring belief.” Tony Burman, ex-editor and chief of CBS news elucidates, “Every news organization has only its credibility and reputation to rely on.” If that is the case, no wonder media outlets are so focused on the reputation and accuracy of their information and photographs. As John Royban, editor of the Toledo Ohio Blade, stated, “Journalism, whether by using words or pictures, must be an accurate representation of the truth” (Saltzman 1). So how exactly does a single photo affect the credibility of a major media organization? Below is an in depth look into three modern cases of photo manipulation and the direct effect each had on their media organization. Specifically, how a single case of photo manipulation can alter public perception of a media organization. This “deception” changes how people can view events, but one must remember that a photograph is part art and part truth.
A career was ruined the day Brian Walski, Los Angeles Times news photographer, created a composite of two Iraq war photos (Figure 9) Picture a man with two cameras around his neck, and a hard hat for coverage crouching amid the shellfire in Iraq. He took 300 photos of British soldiers fighting Iraqi insurgents and civilians escaping the scene that day. When he got back to his tent that night, and looked through the shots, not one spoke to him. So in a split second decision he merged two photos that he had taken just seconds apart and created a composite that related true emotion. This created an amazing shot that just happened to end his career.
Figure 9: Brian Walski, Los Angeles Times, 2003

When the manipulation was revealed, the response of the Los Angeles Times was harsh yet justified in their eyes as they immediately fired Walski. The immediate backlash consisted of photographers discussing how this event could threaten the credibility of their job. This might sound strange, but in order for a reporter or news photographer to have credibility, they must have a spotless reputation. Furthermore, the reputation of the few unethical photographers transfers to many, and the many credible photographers were afraid they would lose their reputation due to the actions of a single individual. Johnston, an assistant editor for the American Journalism Review, explained this event caused such a stir in part because an outstanding photographer in a hard news setting combined two photos, and this was a fairly new ethics breach. Walski himself expressed genuine remorse after his manipulation was brought into the light, “After a long and difficult day, I put my altered image ahead of the integrity of the newspaper and the integrity of my craft. These other photographers are there [in Iraq] risking their lives and I’ve just tarnished their reputation.”
This event sparked ample discussion about the ethics that govern a photojournalist. Joe Elbert, managing editor for The Washington Post, proclaims, “You never change reality.” He goes on to state, “Photojournalists sometimes have to take the hit and come in and say they don’t have anything. It’s totally black and white.” It just comes back to the fact that reputation and credibility in a news-oriented field are inseparable, like a traveler and their passport. So the next step is to figure out what causes a photographer to cross the ethical line. The self-imposed pressure many photographers place upon themselves to create the best photo possible may be one possible cause. Photographers straddle two purposes: truth and art. These opposing purposes cause immense pressure toward photographers, especially in a war zone, which could cause a photographer to breach their own ethical code to create the perfect shot. The perfection of movies and advertisements leads photographers to expect their photos to be perfect as well. Walski said it best, “The push in the industry is to go to that line where news becomes art.” Many of the most famous photographs in our history are ones that defined an important event or horrific moment. However, photos are no longer news of what has happened but an example of art; symbolic of our beliefs and memories. In an attempt to reach that ideal image, Walski crossed the line for the first time and brought this idea of photography ethics to the forefront.
Many of us may ask ourselves, why is this so wrong? The man took both photos merely seconds apart and created an image that was able to resonate in our hearts. He captured emotion, and the composite also had composition that many artists strive for. In the world of art, the artist can use creative license to alter what is there, and create something that has more meaning. Unfortunately, photojournalists are held to different standards, and in a way the Los Angeles Times did have a point. If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, and the picture is false, then the paper published 1000 falsehoods. In truth, the ethical question is subjective, although we can physically see that this one small case of manipulation had a major effect on the Los Angeles Times.
Sherry Ricchiardi, senior writer for the American Journalism Review, told the story of Allan Detrich, a man who manipulated over 69 photos in the Toledo Blade, and probably would have continued doing so if he had not been caught. This case, unlike Walski’s, was not a one-time deal, but a habit that continued over a span of years. For Detrich, photo manipulation became a habit, his reach for perfection, or at least to eliminate blatant flaws, made him cross an ethical boundary for photojournalists. But more than that, he damaged the credibility of the Toledo Blade. The unwritten rule for all journalists is to never change reality, and a photo without a certain person in it, or an object in the background is no longer reality. Detrich not only ruined his own career, but also showed that photo manipulation is becoming a part of journalism.
The photo of a basketball game between Toledo and Kent State, where he added a basketball to the photo cutting off the legs of a man in the background, broke the camel’s back (Figure 10). Detrich was a famous photographer, who had won multiple awards for his photography, including: Pulitzer finalist in 1998 and twice named Ohio photographer of the year. When confronted with evidence of his photo manipulation, he claimed that he submitted the wrong photo; this was an illustration that he planned on framing for himself. Following this incident, the newspaper analyzed all photos that Detrich had submitted in the last three months.

Figure 10: Alan Detrich, Toledo Blade, basketball shot, 2007

The next altered photo they found was a photo of Bluffton University’s baseball team, who lost five players in a bus crash (Figure 11). The paper looked at photos taken by different photographers shot at the same angle, and each had a pair of feet peeking below the banner in the background of the photo. But Detrich’s shot contained no feet, simply grass.
Figure 11: Alan Detrich, Toledo Blade, Bluffton University, 2007

This second case of manipulation exhibited that Detrich repeatedly doctored photos to eliminate flaws. After this second manipulation came into light, Detrich immediately resigned, before the paper had a chance to fire him. After the paper went through all of his submissions, they noticed a trend. He regularly erased unwanted elements from photos. He took out everything from tree limbs and utility wires, to actual people. Additionally, he would add foliage to a tree, or a shrub to a shot. In the end, the paper found that 69 of his photos had been clearly doctored after going through over 900 photos that Detrich had submitted in the three months prior to the basketball game.
Reputation dominates any job that is dictated by public opinion. The case above, of repeated photo manipulation, troubles the entire journalistic community. This event shows that people can skillfully use Photoshop to distort their photos without an organization catching them. Thus, not only are the photographers at the Toledo Blade now being called into question, but photojournalists as a whole. New organizations are now strengthening their code of ethics to try to prevent breaches and reassure the public that what they are selling is the unadulterated truth.
Another scandal hit the Toronto Star, but a photographer was not the one targeted, but the entire paper and its art department were. In response to the scandal the Toronto Star published an article, “Of Photos and Illustrations”, which is summarized and analyzed below. In a single issue of the Toronto Star, a young girl appeared in the issue twice, once as the original color photo and again in another section as a photo illustration. Each photo was clearly labeled as either photo or illustration, but the paper received criticism from many of its subscribers regarding the manipulation of the photo of a young girl using a milk dispensing vending machine into something sinister (Harvey 1). The illustration was of the same girl standing in front of a locker in a school hallway, while an adult male loomed over her. The original picture of innocence was transformed into a piece meant to warn about the dangers of sexual predators in the school environment.
This incident caused many readers of the Toronto Star to call the paper into issue. One man, who had received the paper for over 30 years, now questioned the credibility of the paper, “Was I just not supposed to notice?” The integrity of the paper was also called into question. Another reader with a good eye noticed that the sub-headline of the story that went along with the illustration said, “The people who abuse you are the people you know and trust.” The reader then commented on that sub-headline, saying, “In the interest of preserving ethical journalism, it is imperative that a photograph of one person should not be superimposed onto another photograph in an entirely different context” (2).
The newspaper responded to this incident by defending their stance on illustrations while acknowledging that a mistake had been made. Due to this mishap, they have strengthened their policy when identifying illustrations. Now they not only identify illustrations in the byline but also obscure the identities of the individuals to prevent future sensationalism. In addition they realized that they should specifically state that the photograph is not real, that they have no intention of duping the audience with the illustration. The paper concluded their statement by conceding “the downside is they [photo illustrations] can make our jobs just a little too easy - and perhaps, at times, make us a little too careless” (3). Again this showed how one small photo manipulation could cause extreme backlash and alter the perception of readers.
Though credibility and photo manipulation is an important topic, many people outside of the journalistic community do not analyze photo manipulation and credibility since it does not define their field. In Australia, an unnamed doctoral student supervised by Geoff Turner and John Henningham, both journalism and ethics professors, did immense research on how journalists in different countries react and accept digital retouching in photojournalism. In a particular study, editors, photographers, and other journalists took a survey on what they found as acceptable photo manipulation. They found that American journalists were much more likely to disapprove of manipulation techniques in any type of journalism than their international counterparts. The results of this study were classified by each region, and allowed for the comparison of countries’ ethical standards on photo manipulation. The author stated that there is an international “need for those who carry out the work to have appropriate training and to be aware of what their public might see as unethical standards” (Elgar 1).
The paper contrasted the different techniques that cause a scandal in each country. In Australia, changing the apex of lighting in a photo created a large scandal. Basically, this means that parts of the photo were lightened and other parts darkened so that there would be better contrast. While in the UK it took much more than that to get attention. Two examples that caused a ruckus were when a beer bottle was replaced with champagne in order to label John Prescott as a champagne socialist; and when a woman in a wheelchair was taken out of the background of a cricket photograph. While in France, small changes such as lighting and color are overlooked for the sake of art.
The scenario-based survey gave different examples of photo manipulation, and the journalists were to state if they thought the practice was ethical or not. The results reported, American photo-journalists were most likely to disapprove of the manipulation techniques in news photographs, their approval rating was a measly 2.1%, “whereas British and French photographers were the most likely to believe the same practices were justified (31.7 %). Australian photographers’ approval rating for manipulation techniques in news photographs fell between these extremes (9 %) but was closer to the American ideals. However, when it came to news feature photographs,” photographs that are of everyday life, for example: a portrait, rose garden, restaurant, or human-interest photo. “British photographers supported far higher levels of manipulation without acknowledgment (58.5 % approval), compared with Australian and French photographers (38 %). However, American photographers were still reluctant to use any enhancement techniques on their feature photographs (9.7 %).” (2).
This jumble of percentages boils down to the fact that American journalists are wary of any sort of photo manipulation, much more so than their international counterparts. The survey also showed that journalists in all countries had a higher tolerance for photo manipulation in feature photographs, or photos of everyday life. So the question now is, how can the US media prevent photo manipulation?
Our society as a whole is based on a system of structure and rules, which extends into all forms of business. Thus, the best way to prevent photo manipulation is to create a thorough set of guidelines that dictate the extent of photo alteration. Many newspapers have already created a set of ethics, but some of them are not specific enough. Therefore, it is in the newspaper’s best interest to spell out all limitations so that the photographers have a road map, and the newspaper cannot be penalized. I spent much time trying to qualify this statement but Carlson truly said it best.
The persistence of image editing raises questions about the applicability of blanket ethical statements in accounting for all situations: ‘LA Times policy forbids altering the content of news photographs but doesn’t define precisely what the term ‘content’ means, just what is acceptable and what crosses the line and who really is qualified to judge?’ These are key questions that must be addressed by the entire journalistic community. On its own, objectivity is insufficient to guide photojournalistic practice. Instead, the question of craft must be invoked. What makes a ‘‘good’’ picture should not be reduced to simply a ‘‘true’’ or ‘‘real’’ picture. Photojournalism has its own formal criteria that must be respected and admired as a way of communicating about the world. (Carlson 9).
Many articles that deal with photo manipulation relate it to changing a quote to make it more poignant or powerful. But photography is its own form of media that needs to be considered apart from other types. It answers to different rules, and though written and photographic journalism go hand in hand, they are addressed in a slightly different way. There need to be guidelines that are tailored to what the paper expects and should be tempered to the reality that photojournalists face. Credibility is not something that can be bought; it must be earned over time. It is a form of trust, one that we have in our media; it is hard to build but easy to break.
The biggest worry is that “in the future, readers of newspapers and magazines will probably view news pictures more as illustrations than as reportage, since they will be aware that they can no longer distinguish between a genuine image and one that has been manipulated.” That quote is 21 years old, said by acclaimed photo critic Andy Grundberg in 1990 (Ricchiardi 4). But I believe through strictly enforced ethics on the part of media organizations, the general public will not lose faith in their media organization. Regrettably though, the more scandals that are brought to the surface, the more photojournalism will lose its credibility. If the photography world were viewed as one large illustration, there would be some great artistic shots, but where would the truth be? I can’t imagine our marketplace of ideas without true un-manipulated photos. True photos will always survive, but if people do not have trust in their media, they might as well be just another illustration.

Works Cited

Carlson, Matt. "The Reality of a Fake Image; News norms, photojournalistic craft, and Brian Walski's fabricated photograph." Journalism Practice 3.2 (2009): 125-139. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO.

Elgar, Kerri. “Fuzzy Rules on Digital Images.” The Australian 23 September 2004: 22. Print.

Farid, Haney. “Photo Tampering Throughout History.” Dartmouth, n.d. Web, 25 April 2011.

Harvey, Robin. “Of Photos and Illustrations.” Toronto Star 9 June 2001: K06. Print

Johnston, Cheryl, and Jill Rosen. "Digital Deception." American Journalism Review 25.4 (2003): 10. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO.

Reaves, Shiela. "Digital Retouching: Is There A Place For It In Newspaper Photography?." Journal of Mass Media Ethics 2.2 (1987): 40-48. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO.

Ricchiardi, Sherry. "Distorted Picture." American Journalism Review 29.4 (2007): 36-43. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO.

Saltzman, Joe. "A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Lies." USA Today Magazine 136.2750 (2007): 55. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO.

Zuppa, Chris. “Looking at the Truth of a Photo.” St. Petersburg Time (Florida) 11 Oct. 2009: 6. Print

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