Thursday, June 3, 2010

Photoshop and Photojournalism

With the California June primaries almost upon us, news organizations have to be very careful with their coverage. Outside of the editorial page, newspapers have to appear to be objective in their reporting of issues and candidates. This is especially true with photos - what runs - how they run - and where.

Along with my photography duties at the SF Chronicle, I also filled in at times as a photo editor. I hated it since I preferred to be out on the streets shooting pictures than sitting at a desk looking at them. But they chose me to fill in when needed because they trusted my news judgement. I sat in on the daily editorial meetings along with all the other editors. We decided what was going to be in the next day's Chronicle and how it was all going to play. I looked through all the daily wire and staff photos, read the articles and decided or suggested which photos would run. An awesome responsibility that, despite all my complaining, I did not take lightly. Photographs are like headlines on a page and they need to be dynamic, honest and fair which brings me to the point of this post.

The Dominion Post in Morgantown, WV recently ran a front-page story about the West Virginia governor signing a bill into law. "Erin's Law" was named after Erin Keener, a West Virginia University student who died in a hit and run accident in 2005. "Erin's Law" toughens penalties for deadly hit and run accidents in West Virginia. The original picture of the bill signing was shot by West Virginia Legislative Reference and Information Center photographer Martin Valent, and it was provided to the newspaper. Valent's picture showed five people standing around Gov. Joe Manchin, who was seated at a desk with the legislation and a pen.

But the picture that ran in the newspaper was cropped and photoshopped to remove delegates who were standing behind the governor. Delegates Tim Manchiin, Linda Longstreth, and Mike Caputo all running for re-election had been removed from Valent's original. The two women who were left in the altered photograph are members of Keener's family.

To justify the digital alteration of the picture, Geri Ferrara, editor of The Dominion Post, told a West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter that the three delegates had been removed "due to the newspaper's policy not to publish pictures of candidates running for re-election during the political season." She further justified the digital alteration by saying that the picture had been labeled as a "photo illustration" which indicates, she said, that the photograph has been changed.

But labeling a manipulated photo an 'illustration' in no way exonerates the newspaper. If a photo looks real, in a news context it has to be real. No amount of labeling excuses a visual lie. And that's what occurred here.

Most credible news organizations abide by ethics policies that prohibit the digital alternation or manipulation of any content, including photographs. The National Press Photographers Association's Code of Ethics strictly prohibits manipulation or alternation of content. The Chronicle and other news organizations have policies along the same lines. The Chronicle's policy on images says that "Pictures must always tell the truth. We do not alter or manipulate the content of a photograph in any way. No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph."

Photographer Valent told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that he spoke to the newspaper about his picture being altered, and that the newspaper apologized but at the same time they reiterated their policy as a justification for the manipulation.

If I were the photo editor in that position, what I would have done is just not run the the original photo, instead, I'd run a file photo of Erin Keener who inspired "Erin's Law". That would have much more meaning for the reader than a staged photo.

In future posts I will touch more on truth in photojournalism. With photo applications getting more and more powerful, altering a photo is so easy to do…but for journalism, the consequences can be devastating.


  1. viewing myself as a professional photographer and a part time photo journalist, i find it very disturbing that any changes to the content of a photograph in a news release or report, not only occurred, but was "justified" by the news agency. changes in exposure etc to give more detail are one thing, but removing content to change the story, i consider just pure fiction, why not add persons that could not make the event also.

    where does it stop, photos in papers have been used as evidence to place people near or away form crimes, something like this could change lives and history.


  2. Somebody once told me, "I am used to being lied to, I am an American."

    This is one truth we can all relate to. My reality as a photographer and filmaker is that the closest we can get to documentary or journalism is editorial as it is simply a singular perspective. The sooner we accept that there is not one truth but simply a perspective which is not THE perspective the better off we wil be.

    Photography is not necessarily a lie but it is not reality or truth. It is part of the way we as humans attempt to communicate our experience and emotions with others. It is what I see not what IS.

    In order to communicate it is perfectly legit to manipulate an image in any way to express yourself or your situation as long as you do not pass it off as journalism and refer to it is as photo illustration not photojournalism.

    This is a tricky subject that has been around for longer than most of us and will be here after we go. Personally I feel that 'photojournalism' as we knew it is dead... but that is just my opinion... just like all my images.

  3. Hey Guru, Thanks so much for your thoughts. I agree with parts of the old school way of thinking as well as the newer approach such as "photo illustrations". Both are valid but as you outlined I think we cant be so stuck in our approach and judgment of what is and is not the truth. As you say, there is not one truth but many and so when it comes to... See More capturing the moment it comes down to the photographers interpretation. Essentially we are looking through the filter that is either the photographer or project the capture is being produced for.
    Thanks again for your thoughts and input. Stay in touch.


  4. Thanks for the comments guys.

    George - I'm afraid what happened recently at the Dominion Post is happening at other mostly smaller newspapers. Photoshop has made it just too tempting and some editors just don't get it. Scary…

    Great points Guru. I agree that photojournalism as we knew it is dying if not dead. However, everything is rapidly changing and it's all good for the talented photojournalist who can keep up.

    I grew up in the days of LIFE magazine.That was the pinnacle of photojournalism. I used to marvel at the images of Alfred Eisenstaedt, Robert Capa, Gordon Parks, W. Eugene Smith and many other talented photographers They followed great stories throughout the world, all at the unlimited expense of a publication, that would then help them to display their images over page after page of editorial space.

    Those days are long gone but we still have incredibly talented photographers finding outlets for their great images. The Turnleys, David Hume Kennerly, Sebastiao Salgado, James Nachtwey, Tony Suau are just a few that come to mind. They would all tell you that the publishing world in which they work now, is a far cry from what it was when they started. Space and budget constraints have contributed to a very difficult arena in which to work. Editorial departments no longer have final say over budgets, but must bend to the will of the publishers and lawyers. (Believe me, I've seen this first hand at the SF Chronicle where I worked for 30 years)

    But everything is changing so quickly. With the arrival of the www, we are only beginning to comprehend the implications for visual storytellers. Empowerment is at hand, and it will allow the smart and talented photojournalist to transcend the current marketplace.

    Newspapers and magazines are dying. But I feel in the near future, visual stories will be told not through still images alone as in the old days of Life, but rather primarily through moving images and sound. The web will increasingly replace printed media.

    The role of the storyteller who can capture the events and people of our time, and place them in perspective for our history, will only be enhanced. Exciting times ahead!

  5. Hmmm....why the policy about suppressing photos of political figures who happen to be running for office? Were the state elected reps present or not?
    Were they there due to the work they had done?
    I find the rationale for suppressing reality by claiming that somehow reporting what a political or other figure does because of something else they are doing slipper slope in the first place.
    No wonder newspapers are dying off. Rather than simply report something that actually happens, with images from the actual event, they editorial boards have conflated a set of mental gymnastics to avoid simply reporting the truth.
    The twist is that I bet with just a bit of work it will be sen that the newspaper in question only applies this convoluted policy in an inconsistent fashion that helps its chosen candidates.
    Journalism was supposed to be a story that conforms without ideology to reality. Instead we have the mess of post normal journalism- false but accurate comes to mind- and people are literally not buying it.