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Monday, April 23, 2007

Don't Make News

by Ctein

There is a clear and powerful rationale behind the NPPA rules against digital manipulation. News photos are important. Not just because they convey daily information to thee and me, but because they are the primary historical record in the modern world. News archives have become the most important cultural database and are vital to historians. Watch a show like the History Detectives and see how often they wind up in some newspaper's morgue to pin down otherwise unverifiable facts. That's not a convenient TV fiction, that's real.

Even the trivial can be significant. I don't think anyone is competent to judge the import of content. I sure know I'm not. An artist thinks nothing about deleting power lines from photos. For the historian and the energy researcher, presence or absence of power lines in photos is very important to charting and analyzing the process of electrification and urban modernization in America. Epidemiologists use photo records to plot historical patterns of EMF.

At casual glance, Adnan Hajj's faked "smoke" picture is only an aesthetic change. But, the original shows one fire burning. The fake implies three or four. When so-called "precision targeting" is a hot political issue, this is not a trivial difference! The fake also shows buildings, both damaged and intact, that don't exist.

(Fun fact: after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, city officials altered photos of the downtown to show buildings intact but burning. In fact, they had collapsed in the quake. The East Coast insurance companies would pay off on fire claims, but they didn't cover earthquake damage. The fraud worked, by the way.)

Even white balance changes can matter. Give me a photo of a slightly hazy day in downtown LA (is there any other kind?) and I can change it from healthy air to a second stage smog alert just by messing with the overall color balance.

Who knew power lines or RAW could be of such import?

Without hard guidelines people will alter important new content, either by intention or innocent ignorance. Alteration is simply too easy and too useful, either for reasons of aesthetics or agenda.

And then there's credibility. With most news sources legitimately challenged over objectivity (an uncapturable beast), engaging in active deception, benign as the intent might be, is suicidal.

It's so tempting to make the picture nicer. So the penalties for violation must be stiff and inflexible, because it must be unacceptable. Journalism is not about writing the prettiest words or making the prettiest photo, it's about doing the best you can within the rules that try to keep the profession credible and useful. If you can't live with those rules, don't be a journalist.

Posted by: CTEIN

11 Comments:

Blogger doonster said...

Thanks for that post. I had been leaning towards the "what do minor changes matter" camp (telegraph poles minor, burning building major).

this puts a whole new perspective on it. I was well aware of the SF earthquake issue - discovery of the fraud has led to significant re-thining of earthquake damage which has all kinds of political, engineering, financial consequences.

trouble is, I don't think many news editors have a great sense of posterity.

3:20 AM  
Blogger Ray Kinnane said...

I fully agree that photojournalists that have the responsibility for reporting news, big or small, should be subject to a rule that forbids the manipulation of photographs at any time. But I can't agree with the statement, (quote) ' the penalties must be stiff and inflexible, because it must be unacceptable'. Sure, it should be unacceptable to break the rule, as it should be to break any rule or law, but 'stiff and inflexible'?

To me, this flies in the face of everything that goes with a sense of justice, and the administration of any rule or law. We must hear who broke the rule, the reasons why the rule was broken, and the consequences of breaking the rule. And only then can some independent arbitrator determine the correct penalty.

This is how the rule of law of state or country must work. And how any rule or law regarding anything must be administered. And the reasons are obvious. There is no justice being served in leveling harsh, even extreme blanket punishments for the breach of any rule or law. Circumstances, experience and consequences must always be considered in any democratic society, at any level.

You seem to imply that dismissal is a reasonable course for any breach (my interpretation of your article). Can that be so? Can removing a large, accidently but demeaningly located dust blob on the face of a local miss world contestant, photographed by a new cub reporter, be the same as increasing the amount of smoke in a fire due to the bombing of Baghdad, photographed by a senior, long term photojournalist?

Extreme difference in the examples, definitely, but surely this makes the point that we cannot have blanket punishments for the breaches of any rule, no matter how dear to your heart the medium of photojournalism is.

Ray Kinnane

4:35 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Papers are in the business of selling papers. Dissemination of the dry, boring truth to the population is a secondary activity.

Shareholders put pressure on editors to make an entertaining product. Editors put pressure on writers for exciting/colourful stories and on photographers for exciting/colourful/impactful/aesthetic pictures. These things sell papers.

The editors/owners have been very quick to take the moral high ground but they are just as responsible as the content creators.

The fact that these guys have felt the need to alter/enhance their work is reflecting the pressures handed down to them by an ultra competitive market. From selling papers, to selling images through to selling themselves for the next job.

Writers have been "colourising" their stories since paper was invented, but just like before the Photoshop era... don't believe everything you read OR SEE in a paper.

4:39 AM  
Blogger JohnMcDe said...

I think it was 4 years ago that my former employer asked me to take photographs of one of our buildings for the Philadelphia zoning board. The zoning board would not accept digital images. I had to use film.

7:46 AM  
Blogger H_Leighton said...

But you have to be careful with old newspaper photos, I have dug through a major newspaper's photo archive, and found many manipulated photos:

Cropping people and things out.

Staged photos.

Real cut and paste jobs.

Opaqued areas.

And hand drawn additions.

7:48 AM  
Blogger DarkPenguin said...

All this is beginning to make me question the photographic integrity of the Weekly World News.

9:41 AM  
Blogger rob said...

Okay, but how much truth are we going to demand?

Is it permissible to crop a photograph for publication?

If not, what do we say about the photographer's choice of how to frame the photo? Isn't he or she cropping the photo in the viewfinder?

Doesn't the choice of lens determine how much foreshortening the image undergoes? Isn't that in some respect a manipulation of reality? Should all photos be taken with a normal 50mm lens?

Is it permissible for the photographer to pose the subjects? How about trying to get the subjects to change their positions ("Over here, Senator!")?

It's illusory and self-deceiving to imagine that applying the most rigorous standards to post-processing means that a photographer is simply recording reality. That doesn't mean there shouldn't be standards that are applied, but it does mean we should consider the issues in a broader context.

2:25 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Let's not overthink. Ctein's point here, which is very important, is not that editorial arrangement on the part of the photographer isn't possible. It's that the photographer and editor don't know what part of the content of the picture might be important to a future viewer, and thus, what one person considers a trivial alteration might not be trivial to someone else. It then stands to reason that whatever is shown in the picture ought to be whatever was in front of the lens when the picture was made. It's not so important that a picture of Bob doesn't show Mary, but that the picture purporting to be of Bob actually be Bob, and show what Bob actually looked like, including the wart on his chin.

--Mike

2:37 PM  
Blogger jbloom said...

"It then stands to reason that whatever is shown in the picture ought to be whatever was in front of the lens when the picture was made."

But is even that a high enough standard? How many times have we seen unflattering, unretouched photos of people, places or things used for polemical purposes? The difference between the fleeting instant captured in a still photo and the continuous nature of our senses makes is easy to manipulate the image without altering it. A photograph may be "true" without necessarily being accurate. And given that, it is possible that an altered image may be "truer" than an unaltered image.

This is not to say that I disagree with CTEIN's point. Deliberately changing the content of images is at least a slippery slope that invites alterations that make the image less "true." But an unaltered photograph is not necessarily more accurate than one that has been changed.

I do think that a photojournalist who feels a shot needs to be altered should simply let the photo editor make the call. Sometimes, "Boss, I didn't get the shot" is the right answer.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Jacques said...

Quite some times ago, history was recorded by a few writers...Who had their own viewpoints! Then painters and artists came along to "show" what it could have been... Then came photography!
When was photography considered as a "truth"? Was it because it recorded a "reality"? But then which one?

We all know that in the same war, the same street scene, the same soccer match, without even changing anything to a picture, the simple fact of framing the scene, of seeing something that wasn't in the general overlay of the scene, can change the whole interpretation of an event. Is it "cheating"?
Are Weegee's picture "truth"? Or HCB's ?

When was journalism "honest" ? In our beliefs or in those of the "other camp" (whatever that means)?

Do we capture those scenes automatically like some modern robot or is there anyhow some human interpretation behind the viewfinder?

Sure, cloning somebody out (or pasting him in), adding some more dramatic effects, isn't "fair game"... But really, these new morals on a media that's always been an interpretation of reality by the photographer or worse, by the editor is getting a bit too far... In my viewpoint at least, that doesn't seem to be in the mainstream!

6:45 PM  
Blogger Stephen Haynes said...

The statement regarding white balance changes is so true, but also in the opposite direction. See http://www.shaynes.com/Photos/India_07/India_3-07_562.htm .

9:40 PM  

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