With technology making it so easy to profoundly alter photojournalistic images — deleting or adding items, changing the source of the lighting and so on — how can we, the audience, know that what we’re seeing is “the truth”?
The answer is, we can’t.
While it is commendable that Reuters and Adobe, for example, are working to make altered files more readily identifiable, let’s face it: it’s a losing battle. It will never adequately protect news consumers.
It Comes Down to Two People
Ultimately, preserving truth in editorial photography comes down to the same two people it always has — the photographer and the photo editor. If either of these two is ready to lie, there is no protection to be had.
The news audience would like to believe that our eyes don’t lie. That if we see it, it’s true. That a photograph is a faithful representation of a moment in time and space.
We’d like to believe it — but are we really kidding ourselves?
The reality is, the history of photojournalism is riddled with examples of altered images and outright fakes. And there is no clear line between professionally “improving” an image and unethically “manipulating” it.
Eugene Smith was notorious for spending long hours in his darkroom working on his prints. Did this undermine the authority of his work? Certainly not.
Others have cropped, enhanced, shadowed or even damaged their negatives. Robert Capa’s famous images of the D-Day landing might not have looked like that if they hadn’t been damaged. They look real enough.
So where is the limit, and who decides?
Again, it comes down to the photographer and the photo editor. But as our news coverage becomes more crowdsourced, and as editing barriers fall, replaced by automation, it is inevitable that our images will become less and less credible.
I am still amazed, for example, that the Iranian government did not blunt negative Twitter coverage by tweeting fake images by fake users showing the government’s side of the story. Next time it will happen; count on it.
Branding for Truth
The only way to preserve ethics in photojournalism is to have brands that value credibility. We trust (most of us, anyway) the New York Times for the veracity of its information; photo agencies and individual photographers could build their brands around credibility as well.
Does that mean that ethical photojournalists shouldn’t retouch their images? Not at all. It just means they shouldn’t lie about it.
The IPTC consortium  could have photographers add an “R” for “retouched” to their image files, for example — making it easy to tag images as altered.
Beyond that, it will be up to audiences to be savvier in analyzing what they see. And it will be up to photographers to brand themselves as instruments of truth, if that’s what they want to be considered.