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.