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Getting the full picture: The ethics of news photography alterations

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We all do it. Maybe it's using photo-editing software to remove an unsightly blemish from a digital photo, or blending a few family photos to get one where everyone is smiling and looking at the camera. So what's the big deal if a photojournalist makes a few minor tweaks to better reflect the true essence of their photos?

It's a good question—one I pondered in J-school, and was reminded of while reading this recent article from the New York Times. Why is it considered a cardinal sin of journalistic ethics to modify a photo for publication?

Simply put, journalism as a whole is meant to convey the unaltered, unbiased facts. It could be argued that this is impossible, but in photojournalism, you can get close. The camera doesn't lie unless you make it lie. A photographer's intent in modifying photos could be innocuous, merely intended to "improve composition" for instance, but the impact of those subtle changes can be much more profound.

In the photo sequence to the left, the top two photos were unaltered; the bottommost photo was altered and ran on the front page of the LA Times back in 2003. One glance at the bottom photograph and we see why the photographer did it: It's a much more striking photograph, causing a reader to question, "Why is that soldier yelling and pointing his gun at that man holding his child?"

And that's the key. That didn't happen. It's evident in the original photos that the British soldier wasn't yelling at the father. In fact, he was yelling for the Iraqi civilians shown to take cover. Why does this matter? We need to look at the context of the timeframe here: Allied forces had just invaded Iraq that year, and it was, by most accounts, an unpopular war. The last photograph in the sequence panders to a disgruntled public and has a clear anti-interventionist bias.

Changing this photo directly impacts its message and attempts to create an artificial narrative—the absolute opposite of journalistic integrity. Another clear example of this issue can be seen in the Time and Newsweek covers of the O.J. Simpson verdict.


Note that Time's cover portrays the same photograph—Simpson's mugshot—only darkened. Again, a minor alteration. But again, even that minor change creates a new narrative: one that artificially darkens Simpson's skin color and seems to encourage the "black murderer" stereotype. Was that their intent? Impossible to say, but our intentions are seldom as important as perception.

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