Friday, April 10, 2009

Digital Manipulation in Photojournalism

This week one of the groups presented on digital manipulation. They spoke in part about the role of digital manipulation in photojournalism. I want to expand on this a little bit. As a journalism major, I've had to take an ethics class where we discussed the the controversy surrounding digital manipulation in the photojournalism world. I wanted to share some of my thoughts and opinions, as well as parts of the National Press Photographers Association's code of ethics, which is the standard to which photojournalists are held.

In general, digital manipulation is to be kept at a very minimum in photojournalism. the NPPA's code of ethics states the following:
"Photojournalists operate as trustees of the public... Our primary goal is the faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand."

"Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated."
"Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects."

These three excerpts directly address the question of digital manipulation, I think. They are not technologically specific, and I don't think they need to be. I think that the way in which they simply state that photographs should be "accurate" and not "manipulated" beyond the truth of what could be seen by the naked eye, serves as enough of a guideline for photojournalism.

Photojournalists that are formally educated at a journalism school would, of course, learn this code of ethics. Most photographers in the professional world would also learn about this through the organization that employs them. While there are no laws that punish or fine a photojournalist that does not obey these rules, that photographer does face the career-busting risk of being publicly defamed. Once a photograph is revealed to be misleading or dishonest, that photographer will have trouble finding work. For example, well-known Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj significantly manipulated several photographs during the Israel-Lebanon conflict of 2006. Several bloggers discovered the manipulated photos and Reuters subsequently fired Hajj and removed all his photos from their Web site.

This is great example of how photojournalisms are still held accountable for their actions by the public. Digital manipulation is largely looked down upon in the photojournalism world, as it changes images and the truth they seek to convey.


  1. I agree with the points made by Catarina. The nature of the media world ensures that digital manipulation is kept to a minimum, and if any photographer grossly changes a picture, then he/or/she is discovered.

    I remember a couple of people suggesting that a government body should be created to make certain that digital manipulation occurs, or that there should be certification. That contradicts the nature of freedom of speech in our Bill of Rights, which is the reason there is no licensing in journalism. To create a government set of requirements for journalists would take away the concept of freedom of the press, and would establish a dangerous precedent of government intervention.

  2. I agree with David. There is no government organization that watches news outlets for the accuracy of news (something that is distinctly Orwellian in concept), but publications can still be held liable for false information they publish. The same is (or should be) true for photojournalism. As for advertisements that are digitally manipulated-- if they are done so with a distinct commercial interest in mind, it is an ethical issue more than a legal one. It has never been a crime to talk up (or show up via image) your product, nor should it be.

  3. One major issue with this idea of a code of ethics is that there is not a standard one that is generally required to become a journalist. I liked the point in class when it was said that it is not like the oath doctors take because it is only through certification and a stanardized path that one can become a doctor. These codes for journalists are based on an individual's feeling of a need to be a member of a professional organization such as the Society of Professional Journalists. These are the groups who's members have standards of ethics, but bloggers and people who may only be journalists on like one issue that bothers them arent going to be trained or obligated by it, thus no enforcement. It would take all publishers and station managers and major bloggers taking a stand against non affiliated journalism, which could then severely stifle journalism as a whole, its a double edged sword.

  4. If we want to draw the line with digital manipulation, we need to look at all elements of fiction. People have been making things up since the invention of language, will we start suing feature writers for elaborating a little more detail than was actually there? It’s called fiction, and lots of people get a lot of enjoyment out of it.
    As long as the purpose of the "art" is not to deliberately dupe or misinform, and the photographer is open about his techniques and objectives, the reader or observer should and will not feel tricked.
    Digital manipulation only develops into an issue if and when the photographer tells untruths about his rationale, processes, and before-and-after. In other words, being downright deceitful.

  5. where should the line be drawn though. what is considered manipulation and what is considered a touch up or a lighting fix? are the latter considered manipulation, or something normal that happens when photographers and their staff fix photos to make them magazine/print ready? I know there are a lot of instances where photo manipulation is obvious and not a good thing. for example, women in magazines that get "airbrushed" to look perfect. but on the other hand, there are so many times where a touch up, color change, or lighting change doesn't bother me, even though it might effect the overall look/aesthetic of the photo.

  6. I think journalists live by a completely different set of standards. They are trying to find the truth, and convey the truth in a way that sells. Magazines are more about fashion and finding images/articles/themes that sell, whether they convey a truth or not. I think journalists should be held accountable for any manipulation of any fact or image. I also think everyone else should be held accountable as well, but in our culture what is popular is to have smooth flawless skin, have no body fat, and to wear name brand clothing. It will take years of reshaping peoples idea of what beauty is in order to eliminate the use of digital manipulation.

  7. I think the example brought up about Adnan Hajj is great to focus on. This shows that journalists are definitely held accountable for their actions, regardless of whether or not this is legislation about it. The fact that journalists can be essentially exiled from their careers for manipulating media is immensely important in the debate about whether or not there should be legislation about digital manipulation. It basically shows that the journalism community does a good enough job at mediating issues such as this, without the need for government intervention. It is for this reason that I think people should focus on examples such as that of Adnan Hajj more often. By utilizing experiences from the past, we can resolve issues of the future.

  8. I hope that journalists are held to a higher standard than bloggers. Anyone can be a blogger, but to become a well-known journalist a reputation has to be built. This reputation is built on the integrity of the journalist which is most likely founded on the code of ethics mentioned above as well as a journalist's personal code of ethics. I think most blogger's (with the exception of possibly Perez Hilton) do not rely on their blogging as financial support, but many journalists do. With finances in the balance, I would think journalists take their job very serious and build a reputation with honest writings on which their finances rest.

  9. Journalism has long had its drawbacks. Bob Knight once called people employed in journalism having a job that is "one step above prostitution." I don't think of journalists THAT low, but I do have a problem with someone enhancing photos to misrepresent something. I don't think that it is fair to represent something that is seen by the masses as absolute truth. I know that there is the temptation to make something as appealing as possible but I think this must be resisted so that "true journalism" can be shown to the public.

  10. I feel as if photo manipulation would be quite prevalent in the journalism world. I know there is a code of ethics to uphold, however, when has being the best ever stopped anyone. For example, professional baseball has been marred by the recent rampant steroid use in which all of the top players were found to have used steroids. I feel as if the journalism world is just as competitive as the big stories sells papers. With these big stories comes photo's that depict what actually went on. In order to have a great story, I feel as if photo manipulation is used quite regularly, I mean after all, we're just the uninformed public, would we actually know any better?