Opinion: Media Mangle

In Defense of (Most) Photojournalism

The recent unethical photo manipulation incidents are not the norm

The first thing we did when our newsroom got a copy of PhotoShop in 1991 was put a third eye in the middle of Kimberly Bergalis’ forehead. That memory reminded me once again of the seductive powers of the PhotoShop “cloning tool.”

Ms. Bergalis, if you recall, was a young woman from Ft. Pierce, Fla., who, it was later determined, got AIDS from her dentist. Her photo just happened to be among those moved by AP that day, and we picked it at random to practice on. I remember, as we looked at the manipulated photo, that we suddenly became aware of the power — and dangers — of photography’s new digital age.

Prior to digital photography, about the only things you could do to a photo were dodge, burn and crop. As a weekly editor some years before, I had spent many hours in a darkroom doing just that: burning to darken a too-light area, and dodging to lighten a too-dark area, and cropping to eliminate irrelevant areas of an image.

Sometimes your negative would get dirty or scratched in processing and you’d end up with lines or specks on your print. That’s when you’d have to take an art brush to the print to eliminate these blemishes. But that’s about it. The level of technology back then was simply inadequate to allow major photo fraud.

If you really wanted to fake up a photo, you’d have to paste things from one photo onto another, like Ted Baxter’s dressing-room photos on The Mary Tyler Moore show. Then you’d have to take a photo of that picture and make another print, a step Ted left out.

PhotoShop changed all that. Using PhotoShop you can change a photo pixel by pixel. If you’re good at it, the manipulation will be almost impossible for a layman to notice. And it doesn’t take years of training to do it well. That third eye on Ms. Bergalis looked like the real thing, and we had just opened the program.

Which is what makes the recent incidents of unethical photo manipulation by a Reuters photographer so puzzling. The two photos in question, one showing smoke rising over Beirut and another showing flares being dropped by an Israeli jet, are so clumsily altered that it is hard to believe it was done by anyone who has any knowledge of PhotoShop.

Those photos, and several other egregious examples of staged photos used by major news outlets, have prompted widespread criticism of photojournalists, especially those covering the Middle East. But none of the professional photojournalists I’ve worked with over the last 25 years would have been a party to such nonsense.

In 1994 my newspaper at the time, The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., hosted the Electronic Photojournalism Workshop. This was an annual event designed to promote digital photography. The organizers were positively adamant that nothing be done to an image other than tweaking brightness and contrast and cleaning up specks and streaks that were not part of the original image.

So insistent were they on this point that, when we published the newspaper containing the stories and photo assignments from the conference, no layout that let type intrude into a photograph was allowed. One of those organizers was Kenny Irby, who was then with Newsday but is now Visual Journalism Group Leader and Diversity Director at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Many in the mainstream media have reacted defensively to the blog pressure to expose unethical photo manipulation or staging of photographs. Irby, to his credit, has not succumbed.

“Some are playing a gotcha game with media outlets, and want to make their point that the editing and fact-finding in a lot of newspapers are flawed and incompetent,” Irby told the Christian Science Monitor. “But I’ve had more conversations with bloggers who just say they want to make sure [the media] projects accurate information. That’s a good thing. Media organizations have to be aware that we’re not the absolute authority.”

How to explain what has gotten into those photographers covering the Middle East is beyond me. To be sure, the widespread use of freelancers who have too-close ties to terrorist groups plays a part. But what explains the uncritical approach stateside photo editors have taken to what they send? Why have so many questionable images been accepted by mainstream news organizations?

Strangely, the journalistic establishment seems largely unconcerned about this. There has been no open letter from journalism school deans condemning manipulated images and the use of staged photos. The top journalism blog, Romenesko at Poynter Online, has barely mentioned it, but it did manage with a headline (“Johnson’s critics say his agenda is anti-Muslim, pro-Israel, hateful”) to imply that the blogger who exposed the Reuters fraud, Charles Johnson, was anti-Mulsim. Interestingly, the story that headline was linked to had a very different headline: “A blogger shines when news media get it wrong.”

I also visited several other journalism and photojournalism sites and forums in the past few days and found barely a mention of the issue. It is clearly not a hot topic among journalism professionals, as it is with bloggers. They seem to be trying to ride this out in hopes it will just go away. Someone with only two eyes can see that’s not likely.

Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of its monthy newspaper Carolina Journal.