Our credibility is damaged every time a reputable news organization is caught lying to the public and one of the most blatant and widely recognized cases was the computer enhancement of the TIME Magazine cover photo of O. J. Simpson. TIME took the mug shot of Simpson when he was arrested and changed it before using it on their cover. They would not have been caught if NEWSWEEK had not used the same photo on their cover photo just as it had come from the police. The two covers showed up on the news stands next to each other and the public could see something was wrong.
TIME darkened the handout photo creating a five o’clock shadow and a more sinister look. They darkened the top of the photo and made the police lineup numbers smaller. They decided Simpson was guilty so they made him look guilty. (There are two issues here: one is a question of photographic ethics and the other is a question of racial insensitivity by TIME in deciding that blacker means guiltier. The black community raised this issue when the story broke and needs to be the subject of another article. My concern is with the issue of photographic ethics).
In an editorial the next week, TIME’s managing editor wrote, “The harshness of the mug shot – the merciless bright light, the stubble on Simpson’s face, the cold specificity of the picture – had been subtly smoothed and shaped into an icon of tragedy.” In other words, they changed the photo from what it was (a document) into what they wanted it to be. TIME was making an editorial statement, not reporting the news. They presented what looked like a real photograph and it turned out not to be real; the public felt deceived, and rightly so. By doing this, TIME damaged their credibility and the credibility of all journalists
Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics:
NPPA Statement of Principle adopted 1991 by the NPPA Board of Directors.
As journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public.
As photojournalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its images as a matter of historical record. It is clear that the emerging electronic technologies provide new challenges to the integrity of photographic images … in light of this, we the National Press Photographers Association, reaffirm the basis of our ethics: Accurate representation is the benchmark of our profession. We believe photojournalistic guidelines for fair and accurate reporting should be the criteria for judging what may be done electronically to a photograph. Altering the editorial content … is a breach of the ethical standards recognized by the NPPA.
In his column on 60-second Window 60 Seconds: Ethics in Photo Journalism editor Fred Showker highlights what should not be done.
For the sake of representing honest and accurate information, the digital editor should avoid anything that will change the actual event or scene as it was captured by the camera. This includes adding, removing or moving objects in such a way that the context of the event is altered. The digital image editor must be careful to let the photos speak for themselves. So it’s not permissible to alter any aspect of place or time — like removing wrinkles or gray hair. Additionally they should never enhance or distract from the apparent quality or desirability of a subject, or the aesthetics of a place.
Subtle visual elements like color have a dramatic effect on the viewers interpretation of an image; yet are also difficult to decipher whether the effects or color changes were applied through digital editing or were part of the original event that was being covered. Care must be taken not to allow the blood to be more red or foliage to be less green. Never change the image in a way that creates a misleading impression of the events, participants or context.
People can judge for themselves whether or not standards were broken or simply stretched in the case of the Register’s Trung Nguyen photo. The editor has given his explanation and certainly we have had a good laugh about the whole thing.
I mean, how often do you get the circumstance where a major print publication digitally enhances the image of a politician who recently altered his picture in a campaign ad by inserting his head on someone else’s.