Category Archives: From the Web

The state of ethics in the US & UK Photojournalism- Part One

The state of ethics in the US & UK Photojournalism- Part One


{Photos by Matthew Brady using Jefferson Davis’ body and Abraham Lincoln’s head.}

Doctoring photos is as old as photography itself, yet it’s only with the advent of digital processes that the ethics of such manipulation has become a fireable offence in the professional world. Well, at least in the United States, where most regional daily and weekly newspapers along with national publications follow strict code of ethics. These codes of ethics, however, are not adopted universally and may not exist in regional papers in Britain.

Ethics and the British media is the topic on the tip of many tongues in the wake of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, yet my focus is not on the illegal activities by tabloids but on the ethics of digital manipulation and the staging of events in the British press.

I have the unique opportunity here to examine both of these issues from an outsider perspective. I earned a degree in photojournalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University where ethics was an unofficial major and an integral part of all journalism studies.

I intend to start with ethics in the United States because that is where I began my career in the profession. I worked for small and large newspapers in the States where I never encountered anyone doctoring images that I am aware of.

An inaccurate reality

I am less interested in the use of airbrushing and manipulation in magazines that have caused controversy such as Kate Winslet’s slimmed down body, Lance Armstrong’s T-shirt, or Martha Stewart’s head slapped on a model’s body. I expect these magazines to resort to this kind of gross manipulation and am not surprised by it. But I am very concerned about images depicting accurate events that are distorted because of a lapse in the photojournalist’s better judgment.

The general rule is: you can Photoshop a photo to lighten or darken the image slightly to correct your exposure and you can crop your image. That’s it. You never take out something that’s in the photograph, with the one exception being dust on your sensor (even then it’s debatable). You never add something to an image that wasn’t actually in it. This is a very fine line that some may be tempted to cross but when in doubt doesn’t.

Adjusting the levels of photographs became a topic of discussion after Charlotte Observer photojournalist Patrick Schneider was fired in 2006 after his photograph of a fireman tending a fire was changed from a brownish-gray sky to a deeper color. Schneider defended his ethics when he was suspended for similar acts of leveling in 2003 at the same paper, though he admitted he went too far on occasion. Another of Schneider’s altered photographs shows severe burning in a photograph to darken out the background.


{Photos by Patrick Schneider, The Charlotte Observer}

In 2003, NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewed Schneider about his ethics. You can listen to the interview here.

Photoshopping a Pulitzer

The best and worst example of this kind of manipulation came to light in 2007 when Toledo Blade staff photographer Allan Detrich, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, was fired for manipulating decades’ worth of photographs. The photo that exposed his improper use of Photoshop was a reflective moment at a baseball game, the first since many players perished in a bus crash in Atlanta.

Because of the national interest in this story a dozen or so photographers were at the game shooting from about the same angle. All the images from this time frame included the legs of another photographer going for a different angle in the background. All the images except for Detrich’s.

Another photographer who had attended the event quickly caught it and caused many people to question Detrich’s photo. This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It lead to the Blade’s editors going through his raw photos, finding at least 80 doctored images in only a 14 week time period.


{Photos by Allan Detrich, The Toledo Blade}

Another noteworthy misuse of Photoshop appeared on the June 27, 1994 Time Magazine cover. During the same week Newsweek featured the same photograph of OJ Simpson prompting criticism of Time’s version that had a significantly darkened face causing Time to pull the cover.


{Photo- OJ Simpson Mug Shot}

In 2003, Los Angeles Times photojournalist Brian Walski combined two frames of images from Iraq into one doctored image that The Times ran on its front page. When it was discovered that subjects in the photo appeared twice, the photographer was phoned in Iraq and admitted he doctored the image.


{Photos by Brian Walski, Los Angeles Times}

A more recent case of intense manipulation came in 2010 on the cover of The Economist. It featured a photo of President Obama alone with his head bowed looking at the damage from the BP Oil spill. In reality, Reuters photographer Larry Downing photographed the president with an admiral in the Coast Guard and a Louisiana parish president who was standing right next to Obama.

This goes against Reuter’s code of ethics, which I will discuss in detail in another post, and an Economist editor saying it was altered to make a political point defended it. Tsk Tsk, Economist. This is surely a time where an illustration should have been used to make this point instead of taking someone else’s work and totally annihilating it with a stamp tool.


{Photos by Larry Downing, Reuters}


“Detecting the smoke and mirrors is a challenge. While editors for print publications commonly rely on editing systems that track each change made to an article, photo editors have fewer tools at their disposal and often rely simply on experience and instinct. As a result, the most skilled manipulations can be difficult to catch.” Maria Aspan wrote in a 2006 NY Times article on the ease of alteration.


NPPA’s code of ethics

The National Press Photographer’s Association, the voice of modern photojournalism in America, adopted their digital code of ethics in 1991:

“ 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.”

But how are photographers allowed to get away with gross manipulations? Should it be illegal to doctor photographs in a manner that completely changes the context or should there be a watchdog group to vigilantly monitor these practices? As terrible as these practices are, they are not isolated to the US. In fact they are worse in countries that have not universally adopted code of ethics.

Next time I’ll examine code of ethics that may or may not exist in the UK and some controversial images that bring manipulation to light (pardon the pun).

Photo nerds and photo links

Proof how nerdy photographers really are. Check out the guy with the little polaroid!

Here are some links from the web this week:

“A decade ago, in a moment of inspiration, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority stumbled on a way to help the environment and its own bottom line: donating retired subway trains to the little-known cause of creating artificial reefs.” Read the full story.

“A few days ago, I ordered a new, but used, camera from online digital imaging superstore, B&H Photo, I found a CF card which was left inside the camera. I found these contained in said CF card. It offers a brief glimpse into the clandestine operation that is B&H.” Read the full story.

“The 1981 self-portrait taken by celebrated photographer Cindy Sherman was sold at a Christie’s auction Wednesday. The sale surpassed Christie’s estimates of $1.5-2 million ringing in at a final price of $3,890,500.” Read the full story.

“Vintage Cannes: Star Gazing at the Beach” Read the full story.

“The UK’s Wembley Stadium has posted a 10-gigapixel, 360-degree interactive panorama. It was stitched together from nearly 1,000 individual images taken inside the stadium three days ago during the FA Cup Final soccer/football match. Anyone with a Facebook account can tag themselves or friends while viewing and navigating the panorama; more than 18,000 fans have already been tagged.” Read the full story.

“Despite hundreds of professional photographers covering today’s shuttle launch, an image taken on an iPhone by an unemployed event planner from Hoboken is the most memorable – and the most viral.” Read the full story.

Better late than never!

I have to admit I haven’t really been thinking about blog posts recently. The past month has been spent photographing my mother-in-law’s wedding, a slew of interviews, driving 7.5 hours to Ipswich and then being offered a Senior Photographer position at Archant Suffolk. Now I’m trying to start packing and my husband is trying to figure his job situation, since his company isn’t being as helpful as we had hoped.

I am not new to moving to strange places for a job, but my husband has lived in Edinburgh for over a decade so this will be huge for him. But this is a dream job for me so I really hope everything will fall into place. But if my blog looks sad and neglected in the next few months, this is why. I will try and at least add links to interesting articles I see on the web:

Photo Links (ph-inks)

AFP has recently begun using forensic software to alert photo editors to manipulated images produced by third party sources and amateur witnesses. Read the full story.

The Associated Press has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all of the photographs and video taken by U.S. military personnel during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and on the USS Carl Vinson, the ship that conducted his burial at sea. Read the full story.

The ultra-Orthodox Jewish publication ran a doctored copy of the iconic “Situation Room Photo” last Friday – you know, the one taken of President Barack Obama and his national security team during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Scrubbed from the picture: the two women in the room. Read the full story.

AP, Reuters sitting out S.C. debate. First, a batch of top-tier Republican prospects — including Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mitch Daniels and Mike Huckabee – decided to sit out tomorrow night’s GOP presidential primary debate, co-sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party. And now, major media organizations are sitting it out too. Read the full story.

Osama bin Laden before Bin Laden. At 14 he seemed so innocent. Yet these gentle, beatific looks are what made him so charismatic – and dangerous – in later life. Read the full story.


Where was this school photographer when I was in high school and my senior photo looked like I was the purtiest gurl in the trailer park?? In an Australian girl’s school, the photogs turned a messy do into a Big Love polygamist cult don’t apparently at the school’s behest. I see girls at the bus stop after school and they all have wind-swept-yet-spent-3-hours-and-a-can-of-aquanet-to-get-it-to-look-like-this hair and would be quite offended if anyone assumed it wasn’t supposed to be that way.

I don’t believe that the photographers should have done it because I am generally against any forms of alteration but shooting commercially I know that a spot has to go if I want to sell a print of a girl. I guess it depends on who the client actually is in this situation, the school or the students.

See the story here.


After working for the Scottish police on several cases where I had to develop and process old rolls of film found at scenes of, well, lets just say not so nice men with a penchant for very young “women,” I have become very wary of finding unprocessed rolls of film.

In New York, a photographer without the same distrust of human kind, found a roll in Central Park, processed it and then went on a quest to find the photographer and return the processed images. This adventure, that he says is reminiscent of “Amelie,” took him to Paris where he found the student who lost the roll while studying abroad. Before heading back stateside he left his own roll outside the cafe where Amelie worked daring the finder to find him.

I think it’s a cute story, but again, I think if I found the roll of film while in Paris I don’t think I’d be as quick to expose the photographer.


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