Photoshop and Photojournalism

With the California June primaries almost upon us, news organizations have to be very careful with their coverage. Outside of the editorial page, newspapers have to appear to be objective in their reporting of issues and candidates. This is especially true with photos – what runs – how they run – and where.

Along with my photography duties at the SF Chronicle, I also filled in at times as a photo editor. I hated it since I preferred to be out on the streets shooting pictures than sitting at a desk looking at them. But they chose me to fill in when needed because they trusted my news judgement. I sat in on the daily editorial meetings along with all the other editors. We decided what was going to be in the next day’s Chronicle and how it was all going to play. I looked through all the daily wire and staff photos, read the articles and decided or suggested which photos would run. An awesome responsibility that, despite all my complaining, I did not take lightly. Photographs are like headlines on a page and they need to be dynamic, honest and fair which brings me to the point of this post.

The Dominion Post in Morgantown, WV recently ran a front-page story about the West Virginia governor signing a bill into law. “Erin’s Law” was named after Erin Keener, a West Virginia University student who died in a hit and run accident in 2005. “Erin’s Law” toughens penalties for deadly hit and run accidents in West Virginia. The original picture of the bill signing was shot by West Virginia Legislative Reference and Information Center photographer Martin Valent, and it was provided to the newspaper. Valent’s picture showed five people standing around Gov. Joe Manchin, who was seated at a desk with the legislation and a pen.

But the picture that ran in the newspaper was cropped and photoshopped to remove delegates who were standing behind the governor. Delegates Tim Manchiin, Linda Longstreth, and Mike Caputo all running for re-election had been removed from Valent’s original. The two women who were left in the altered photograph are members of Keener’s family.

To justify the digital alteration of the picture, Geri Ferrara, editor of The Dominion Post, told a West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter that the three delegates had been removed “due to the newspaper’s policy not to publish pictures of candidates running for re-election during the political season.” She further justified the digital alteration by saying that the picture had been labeled as a “photo illustration” which indicates, she said, that the photograph has been changed.

But labeling a manipulated photo an ‘illustration’ in no way exonerates the newspaper. If a photo looks real, in a news context it has to be real. No amount of labeling excuses a visual lie. And that’s what occurred here.

Most credible news organizations abide by ethics policies that prohibit the digital alternation or manipulation of any content, including photographs. The National Press Photographers Association’s Code of Ethics strictly prohibits manipulation or alternation of content. The Chronicle and other news organizations have policies along the same lines. The Chronicle’s policy on images says that “Pictures must always tell the truth. We do not alter or manipulate the content of a photograph in any way. No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph.”

Photographer Valent told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that he spoke to the newspaper about his picture being altered, and that the newspaper apologized but at the same time they reiterated their policy as a justification for the manipulation.

If I were the photo editor in that position, what I would have done is just not run the the original photo, instead, I’d run a file photo of Erin Keener who inspired “Erin’s Law”. That would have much more meaning for the reader than a staged photo.

In future posts I will touch more on truth in photojournalism. With photo applications getting more and more powerful, altering a photo is so easy to do…but for journalism, the consequences can be devastating.