Sunday, February 28, 2010

Remember Our American History, Keep your eyes open

Rule number 1, Always Keep your Eyes Open

Photojournalism visual lies

Susan Brannon
It is time to get back to the theme of this report - the ethics involved with the use of computers to process images.

I like the Weekly World News. It provides a constant source of photos for these discussions about ethics. One of the more famous front pages shows a space alien shaking hands with President Clinton. It is a wonderful photo, guaranteed to make the career of any photographer who manages to get an exclusive shot of this event.
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We can laugh at this photo and I have no real problem with the Weekly World News running such digitally created photos because of the context of where this photo is running. This is the second of the vocabulary words I want to give you: CONTEXT. Where the photo runs makes all the difference in the world. If this same photo ran on the front page of the New York Times, it would damage the credibility of the Times. In the context of the Weekly World News, it cannot damage their credibility because that newspaper does not have any credibility to begin with (it seems we need to create a new set of terms when we can refer to the weekly World News and the New York Times both as newspapers).
Context becomes a problem when we find digitally altered photos in reputable publications, and there have been many. For example, the cover of TexasMonthly once ran a photo of then Governor Ann Richards astride a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle. It came out that the only part of the photo that was Ann Richards was her head. The body on the motorcycle belonged to a model and the head of the governor was electronically attached to the model.

On the credit page in very small type, the editors claimed they explained what they had done and that this disclosure exonerated them.
They wrote:

    Cover Photograph by Jim Myers
    Styling by Karen Eubank
    Accessories courtesy of Rancho Loco, Dallas;
    boots courtesy of Boot Town, Dallas;
    motorcycle and leather jacket courtesy of Harley-Davidson, Dallas;
    Leather pants by Patricia Wolfe
    Stock photograph (head shot) By Kevin Vandivier / Texastock
In the first place this was buried on the bottom of a page very few people look at, in a type size few over 40 can read and was worded in a way as to be incomprehensible.

Secondly, my feeling is that no amount of captioning can forgive a visual lie. In the context of news, if a photo looks real, it better be real. This photo looked real but it was a fake. We have an obligation to history to leave behind us a collection of real photographs. This photo of Ann Richards entered into the public domain and on the day she lost her reelection bid, AP ran the photo on the wire for its clients. AP had to run a mandatory kill when they were informed it was not a real photo.
Written Lies

Janet Cooke was a reporter at the Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for a story she wrote about an eight-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. The Prize was taken back and she was fired when it was discovered that she made up the story. Can you imagine if the Post put a disclaimer in italics at the end of the story when it first ran, that said something along these lines: "We know this exact kid does not exist but we also know this kind of thing does happen and so we created this one composite kid to personalize the story. Even though Jimmy does not exist you can believe everything else we wrote." The Post would have been the laughing stock of the industry and yet this is what TexasMonthly is doing by captioning away a visual lie. You have to have the same respect for the visual image as you have for the written word. You do not lie with words, nor should you lie with photographs.

Photojournalism and personal taste

Susan Brannon
Honest photographs can have an ethical dimension when it concerns the personal ethics of the photographer. Did the photographer violate some ethical standard in the process of making the picture?

For example, take the very famous photo of the young child dying in Sudan while a vulture stands behind her, waiting. It was taken by Kevin Carter who won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo (a photo that raised a lot of money for the relief agencies). He was criticized for not helping the child; he replied there were relief workers there to do that. After receiving his Pulitzer, Kevin Carter returned to Africa and committed suicide. He had a lot of problems in his life but, with the timing of the sequence of events, I cannot help thinking there is a correlation between his photographing the child and his suicide.

This is the kind of choice all journalists will face some time in his or her career; maybe not in the extreme situation that Carter faced, but in some way, we all will be faced with choices of helping or photographing. Some day we will be at a fire or a car accident and we will be called upon to put the camera down and help. It is a good idea to think about these issues in advance because when the hour comes, it will come suddenly and we will be asked to make a choice quickly.

Here is the principle that works for me. It is not a popular one and it is one that many journalists disagree with but it allows me to sleep at night. If you have placed yourself in the position where you can help, you are morally obligated to help. I do not ask you to agree with me. I just want you to think about this and be prepared; at what point do you put the camera down and help? At what point does your humanity become more important than your journalism?

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Photojournalism Ethics and Taste

In order to have a rational, logical discussion of ethics, a distinction needs to be drawn between ethics and taste. Ethics refers to issues of deception, or lying. Taste refers to issues involving blood, sex, violence and other aspects of life we do not want to see in our morning paper as we eat breakfast. Not everyone defines taste-ethics this way but I find it useful. Issues of taste can cause a few subscription cancellations and letters to the editor but they tend to evaporate in a few days. Ethics violations damage credibility and the effects can last for years. Once you damage your credibility, it is next to impossible to get it back.

The photo of the dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu raises issues of taste, not issues of ethics. This photo is a fair and accurate representation of what happened in Somalia that day (I hesitate to use the word "truthful." Truth is a loaded concept, open to personal interpretation. What is true for one person may not be true for another. I prefer to use the terms "fair and accurate." These terms are more precise, though not completely without debate over their meaning).

If we are to use this photo, a photo that is ethically correct but definitely of questionable taste (no one wants to see dead American soldiers in the newspaper), we need to have a compelling reason. Earlier I mentioned I would give you some principles that I find useful and this is the first: If the public needs the information in the photo in order to make informed choices for society, then we must run the photo. We cannot make informed choices for our society unless we have access to fair and accurate information. A free society is based on this right. It is codified in our country as the First Amendment. We have to know what is happening in our towns, in our country, in our world, in order to make decisions that affect us as a society. The First Amendment does not belong to the press, it belongs to the American people. It guarantees all of us the right to the fair and accurate information we need to be responsible citizens.

We needed to see the dead soldier in the streets so we could make an informed choice as a country as to the correctness of our being in Somalia. Words can tell us the facts but photos hit us in the gut. They give us the real meaning, the deep and emotional impact of what was happening much better than words can. As a society we decided that we needed to leave that country.

I feel bad for the family of the soldier but sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. In our country, we have the right to our privacy (usually the Sixth Amendment is cited) but we also have to live together and act collectively. This need is addressed by the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Photojournalism Ethics and credibility example

Our credibility is damaged every time a reputable news organization is caught lying to the public and one of the most blatant and widely recognized cases was the computer enhancement of the TIME Magazine cover photo of O. J. Simpson. TIME took the mug shot of Simpson when he was arrested and changed it before using it on their cover. They would not have been caught if NEWSWEEK had not used the same photo on their cover photo just as it had come from the police. The two covers showed up on the news stands next to each other and the public could see something was wrong.


TIME darkened the handout photo creating a five o'clock shadow and a more sinister look. They darkened the top of the photo and made the police lineup numbers smaller. They decided Simpson was guilty so they made him look guilty. (There are two issues here: one is a question of photographic ethics and the other is a question of racial insensitivity by TIME in deciding that blacker means guiltier.

In an editorial the next week, TIME's managing editor wrote, "The harshness of the mug shot - the merciless bright light, the stubble on Simpson's face, the cold specificity of the picture - had been subtly smoothed and shaped into an icon of tragedy." In other words, they changed the photo from what it was (a document) into what they wanted it to be. TIME was making an editorial statement, not reporting the news. They presented what looked like a real photograph and it turned out not to be real; the public felt deceived, and rightly so. By doing this, TIME damaged their credibility and the credibility of all journalists.

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Ethics and credibility

"We have many problems in journalism today that threaten our profession and in fact threaten the Constitution of our country. Photo-ops, lack of access to news events, rock show contracts, yellow tape and bean counters are just a few. Everyone has a spin; everyone wants to control the news media. We are under attack from all sides.

One of the major problems we face as photojournalists is the fact that the public is losing faith in us. Our readers and viewers no longer believe everything they see. All images are called into question because the computer has proved that images are malleable, changeable, fluid. In movies, advertisements, TV shows, magazines, we are constantly exposed to images created or changed by computers. As William J. Mitchell points out in his book, The Reconfigured Eye, Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, we are experiencing a paradigm shift in how we define the nature of a photograph. The Photograph is no longer a fixed image; it has become a watery mix of moveable pixels and this is changing how we perceive what a photograph is. The bottom line is that documentary photojournalism is the last vestige of the real photography.

Journalists have only one thing to offer the public and that is credibility. This is the first vocabulary word I want you to remember, and the most important. Without credibility we have nothing. We might as well go sell widgets door to door since without the trust of the public we cannot exist as a profession.

Credibility - some questions to ask

   1. In what Context is the photo being used?
   2. Is the photograph a Fair and Accurate Representation of the information being presented?
   3. Does this photograph Deceive the reader?

Text taken from, no one could have said it better!

In the photo above, the LA Times ran a story, below you can see the original image, above is the image that was ran.  They enhanced the colors.

Visual Journalists operate as trustees

Visual journalists operate as trustees of the public. Our primary role is to report visually on the significant events and varied viewpoints in our common world. Our primary goal is the faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand. As visual journalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its history through images.

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.

This code is intended to promote the highest quality in all forms of visual journalism and to strengthen public confidence in the profession. It is also meant to serve as an educational tool both for those who practice and for those who appreciate photojournalism.

Photojournalism Code of Ethics

Visual journalists and those who manage visual news productions are accountable for upholding the following standards in their daily work:

   1. Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
   2. Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
   3. Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one's own biases in the work.
   4. Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
   5. While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
   6. 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.
   7. Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.
   8. Do not accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.
   9. Do not intentionally sabotage the efforts of other journalists.

This ethical code was taken from the website, which I am a proud member of.  To me photojournalism ethics is the most important aspect in news journalism...not only when making images, but also in writing. 

In the future posts, I want to start talking about ethics in journalism, manipulating images and digital ethics.