Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Exploring Journalistic Ethics

We’re nearing the semester midpoint at the University of South Carolina, and I’ve had some interesting discussions with my Advanced Photovisual Communications students about journalistic ethics. Most of my students are flexing their Photoshop muscles — using the software to crop, resize, and adjust color and contrast. Some are taking the next step (or should I say plunge?) into the world of image manipulation — by retouching their photographs, combining elements from several pictures into a single image, and/or selectively changing sharpness or density in parts of their images.

All of this learning activity is welcome. These are skills that will serve my students well when they enter the business world as photographers, graphic designers, or public relations professionals. But we are careful to draw a distinction between the vast arenas of image use and the particular venue occupied by photojournalism — images that regularly appear in the news columns of newspapers and magazines, in books, and in the content area of news-related Web sites. Students have no trouble understanding — or problem accepting — the fact that photojournalism has its own rules about what is and what is not acceptable in terms of image manipulation.

Between Nothing and Everything

So what, exactly, are those rules? As an exercise, I recently asked my students to imagine that we had been elected by America’s photojournalists to formulate rules regulating image manipulation: what is acceptable and what is not. I drew a line across the top of the dry-erase board connecting these words: “Nothing” and “Everything.” This line represented a continuum between two extreme positions: “Absolutely no manipulation of any kind is acceptable” and “Anything goes.”

As I had expected, there was no support among my students for either extreme. “Anything goes” might be fine for the world of advertising photography, but not for photojournalism. As for the no-manipulation extreme, that presents a problem too: it is nearly impossible to imagine what a totally unmanipulated image would look like. In terms of film, I suppose you could argue that a color transparency represents the closest we can get to “what the camera actually saw.” This is because a transparency is first generation, whereas a print is once removed from the original. However, the accuracy of the color in color transparencies depends greatly on the processing — as those of us who have experienced unwelcome color shifts know all too well. So reproducing “what the camera actually saw” may be something of an illusion.

What about digital images — can we get a truly unmanipulated image? If we are shooting JPEGs, the camera is doing some manipulation of the image recorded by the sensor. If we shoot in raw mode, we generally “process” the raw image — another form of manipulation. And, as everyone points out when this discussion comes up, photojournalists working in darkrooms commonly used techniques such as burning and dodging to manipulate (enhance?) their images. Why can’t we do the same digitally? Clearly, then, our rules for acceptable manipulation are going to fall somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes.

O.J. and Other Infamous Manipulations

So, I ask my students, can we perhaps use the darkroom example as a guide: “Rule #1. Common darkroom techniques shall be considered acceptable in Photoshop.” This seems to offer at least a starting point. Or does it? When Time ran a photograph of O.J. Simpson on its June 27, 1994, cover, the image was darkened and blurred — something easily done in the darkroom or in Photoshop. Time even labeled the photograph as a photo illustration on its table-of-contents page. But this simple manipulation provoked outrage among the general public, especially because Newsweek ran the same photograph, unaltered, during the same week. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

Other instances of manipulation — some of which probably seemed insignificant to the manipulators at the time — have become the stuff of legend: National Geographic moving the Pyramids to fit on its cover (February 1982); Day in the Life of America manipulating a horizontal image to fit vertically on its cover (1985); and Newsday featuring Olympic hopefuls (and bitter rivals) Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding ice-skating together (Feb. 16, 1994) — a day before the joint practice session actually took place. Each of these instances provoked intense discussion in the photographic community about what is acceptable and what is not.

Are standards from the world of print journalism any help? Few of us speak in complete, coherent sentences. So, many reporters routinely clean up quotations from their subjects, removing the “um”s and “like”s, in order to make the words more understandable. These deletions do not — indeed must not — change the meaning. Rather, they are intended to remove extraneous material and let the reader get to the heart of the matter. Most readers, for their part, probably understand that they are not getting a verbatim transcript but merely an excerpt designed to capture the most important things the subject had to say.

Should we, as photojournalists, take the same approach to image manipulation? In other words, is it OK to remove distracting elements, such as telephone wires running through a person’s head in an outdoor shot? What about something potentially embarrassing to the subject, such as a facial blemish or an unzipped fly? Here we enter a gray area with differing opinions. Some photographers and editors maintain a strict policy of allowing only basic manipulations to correct an image’s density and color balance. Anything else — adding or removing pixels — is off limits, basically because doing so deceives the viewer. Others take the approach that it is OK to perform certain manipulations, as long as they are designed to help the viewer obtain the necessary information from the image.

Who Benefits?

Where else can we turn for guidance? Ken Kobré, professor of photojournalism at San Francisco State University, has an excellent chapter on ethics in his best-selling textbook Photojournalism: The Professionals’ Approach, published by Focal Press. In this chapter, Kobré considers all the ethical issues facing photojournalists, including image manipulation. Some of the examples and discussions I share with my students are drawn from Kobré’s book. In order to navigate the increasingly challenging maze of ethical issues, Kobré proposes a “Who Benefits?” test.

When an image is manipulated, there is usually some ulterior motive. For example, the editors of National Geographic, Day in the Life of America, and Newsday all wanted to create dramatic covers for their publications. Who benefited from these covers? Initially (before the manipulations were discovered), the publications benefited. The audience learned nothing new or important by having the Pyramids moved or the two skaters merged into a single shot. Would your audience benefit from having the phone wires removed from behind your subject’s head? Or would you be doing it to correct a mistake you, as the photographer, should have avoided in the first place? Who benefits if you retouch a blemish or close a zipper? Your audience or your subject?

There are few easy answers. Ultimately, these questions go to the heart of our credibility as journalists. Why should you, as an audience member, believe the pictures you see? Everyone knows how easy it is to manipulate images — many people have basic photo-editing software on their home computers. What, then, gives photographs their believability? The thread of journalistic credibility is stretched thin with each new revelation of fakery in the newsroom. Remember when journalist Walter Cronkite was the most trusted public person in America? Today, many people cannot even distinguish between journalists and entertainers. As I tell my students, credibility is our most important asset as journalists. If we lose that, we lose everything.

[tags]photojournalism, journalism ethics[/tags]

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