Badge of Honor: The Case for Better Labeling in Photojournalism

Every year, I rant to my students about “photo illustration” as a label. Here’s the short version:

Readers have no clear idea what that means, it is unevenly applied, and using “photo illustration” may make journalists feel they’ve done the ethical thing, but it doesn’t tell readers much.

I’m not alone. In Black Star’s e-book, Photojournalism, Technology and Ethics: What’s Right and Wrong Today, there’s a great section on manipulated photos. (It starts on page 45.) Michael Coyne is quoted in there: “Images used in publications, especially news media outlets, should have some sort of symbol, sign or comment notifying the viewer that the images have been manipulated…”


Here’s my idea: adopt a badge with a standard set of labels to accompany photos, something more obvious than a line of six-point type. For the sake of an example, let’s say a 10-point letter, or combination of letters, in a small box.

If you publish a montage, give it an “M.” A photo from the studio gets an “S.” A straight shot might only need a “TS” (tonal correction and sharpening) or an “AS” (as shot). There’s “P” for posed and “TE” for time exposure. We can identify all the common manipulations –- even the obvious ones -– and assign them letters. Local publications can expand the list as needed to cover special situations.

On the Web, when the reader hovers over the symbol, a tool-tip-type popup box will explain “2E” means double exposure. A link could be created to a fuller definition or explanation if required. Readers would get real information. (This doesn’t work as elegantly in print: a glossary would need to be published somewhere in each edition.)

If I were smarter, I’d figure out how to add labels to the metadata embedded in digital photos and make that accessible.

The question is, do we really need this?

Readers are smart. They know that a photo of “a pig riding a flaming motorcycle while juggling sharks” –- to use Mark M. Hancock‘s example from Photojournalism, Technology and Ethics -– isn’t real. Do we need to tell them it’s a composite (“C”)? Do we need to show we’ve made subtle tonal adjustments to a photo (“T”) so that it more accurately reflects the reality we shot? Do readers need to know we’ve used a filter to reduce noise (“NR”)? Do we need to reach a level of truth-telling that’s edging toward photographic puritanism?

I think we do. Transparency –- giving readers as much information as possible so they can judge veracity and intent, and establishing a base level of honesty about process –- is one of the emerging new values of journalism. Maintaining (or regaining) readers’ trust requires an open relationship.

This doesn’t stop the real problem: photographers who grossly manipulate to make their images “better.” That’s the blight on the body.

But adopting and using a system that tells readers what we’ve done, in terms that they understand (and that’s one of the important bits of this), shows a willingness to be open and honest about the standards that really matter to us.

3 Responses to “Badge of Honor: The Case for Better Labeling in Photojournalism”

  1. I can definitely see where this is coming from & I do think it makes sense to a point but doesn't that kind of defeat at least some of the purpose of correcting images in the first place? If I smooth a little bit of noise in the shadows (because it wasn't there in the real life scene) do i really need to tell the world I've edited my image? There would be know way for people to tell whether you've removed a ton of noise all through the image because you sucked & blew your shot or if you just touched up a tiny little bit in one small area so I think the reader would automatically assume the worst. I think that may even make things worse because every time someone see's a little letter combination all they'll understand is that the photo has been edited. To borrow a famous analogy, I think they may end up concentrating so much on the tree that they won't be able to see the forest anymore. Of course I could be way off base & this may help the industry but I guess I'm just weary due to how weak the "business" of photojournalism is at the moment (meaning, how many newspaper staff shooters are left in the country, like 5?).

  2. I agree that in photojournalism work we need a healthy dose of honesty, clear ethics, and sense of transparency. But as Brad noted above, the key question is: where is the threshold that is helpful and doesn't just become too much info., or harmful? I'd rather err on the side of too much info. I think that that in an uncertain world, one that increasingly has learned the need to be suspicious of mediated content, we also have a duty to inform and educate to why we do what we do, how we do it, why it matters, and how this is good. I do think Brad is right in that we also need to be careful that a hyper response has its own consequences that double back on us.

    That threshold is somewhat relative to what we shoot, when, how, and what promises direct or implicit are made about the product, and the use we intend. Which ultimately means that we have to make sure that Ethics is not something left for the end of the process, as a last minute consideration, like the last stamp in an assembly-line model of photojournalistic production.



  3. I think that a distinction needs to be made between digital manipulation and digitally doing what used to be done with an enlarger. In the days of film, did anyone ever think that it was our duty to inform readers that a photo was cropped? Did we need to explain why we chose to shoot something in color instead of black and white? Did we need to explain our choices of contrast filters? Every photojournalist I know kept a warming filter welded to their lenses when shooting color slides. Why should digital tonal correction and sharpening come under scrutiny when burning and dodging were never an issue back in the day? Yes, who are we to decide where the line lies between manipulation and just making a picture look good? I don't know. But at some point, a modicum of common sense needs to come into play.

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