June National Geographic cover debated
Compiled by John Long, Ethics Committee Chair
With Committee members Steve Raymer, Peter Southwick and Sean Elliot

It was a simple note from an NPPA member questioning the use of a digitally created photo on the cover of the June 2013 issue of National Geographic. One message – no massive outcry, no flood of protests. I began to wonder if we have become numb to the digital manipulation of photos or if no one cares anymore. Has the digital revolution passed and left a handful of buggy whip makers bemoaning the new age? Or does this cover simply not rise to the level of the famous Pyramids cover? One email comment: “What was a cardinal sin in the ’80’s (pyramids, for instance) seems to be pretty common practice now. I’ll never like it, or even find it interesting, but it’s clearly here to stay.”

The cover depicts James Cameron kneeling of the floor of the ocean sans mask and air source, surrounded by lights and bubbles and rocks and sand. It is dramatic but does it really fool anyone. Is the reader deceived? On page 143, there is an explanation of how the illustration was created, complete with photos.

This became an interesting discussion among the members of the Ethics Committee with widely differing points of view.

First question – does this photo deceive the reader? Not really. Nobody sits on the ocean floor, well groomed, well lit, without breathing apparatus. “It looks like something out of a James Cameron sci-fi film … Quite frankly.”

Second question – was there an intention to deceive the reader? Obviously not since they ran an entire page explaining how they made the picture.

Thirdly, it is a portrait, not a documentary image. The rules are a little different.

Our first reaction was that there was nothing here but then we started to think about it a little more.

As one of us wrote, “If this were a Vanity Fair cover, I’d say, “Fine. ‘Tis in keeping with the character of the magazine.” But to put a fake photograph on the cover of a magazine that claims to be about documentary photography cheapens the brand.” Context is an important aspect of ethical discussions. In the context of National Geographic, is this photo too digitally modified to be ethical?

But is this even an ethical issue? We are faced with poor journalism when a quality publication such as National Geographic stoops to using photo illustrations instead of documentary photographs, but is this unethical? And if it is not an ethical problem, should our committee be involved with this discussion at all?

One member’s comment: This, “I think, is where I was at the beginning, the question being more one of journalistic standards than one of ethics. Though I think we could make an argument that the use of such illustrations, regardless of how up front their use may be, nonetheless degrades the overall sense of integrity of journalistic images. The fact that images are so easily altered/fabricated does not do a service to the trust we need in our work.”

And another: “I’ve had to think long and hard about it, but in my case it comes down to one thing: manufactured photos don’t interest me, and never have. I like real moments, and always have. I’ve been looking at magazine covers for as long as I can remember, and rarely has something phony caught my eye in a way that makes me want to buy or read the publication (that is the goal, isn’t it?).”

And yet, when stated this way, does the use of a digitally created photo qualify as an ethical issue? “The cover of the Geographic certainly seems like a case of betraying our collective value of truth, as well as one of the core values of the National Geographic Society.”

We use the word “ethics” as an all-encompassing guide but in reality, ethics refers to the recommended actions for the participants in a group. Ethics are based on loyalties and principles. Principles are based on values.

One member’s perspective- “My problem with this focus (on ethics alone) is that in today’s professions, journalism being one, we can not easily separate classic “textbook ethics” of Aristotle, Bentham, Kant, and other great philosophers, from professional values and professional practice. This is why most university-level classes are now called “media ethics and values.” Ethical theory, or ethics, informs our professional practice.” I don’t think we can separate ethics from values and loyalties.”

With this definition, it is quite proper for the ethics committee to take issue with the James Cameron cover since it seems to violate National Geographic’s value structure and its belief in the value of documentary photography.

The committee contacted Chris Johns, Executive Vice President, group editorial director and Editor in Chief, National Geographic Magazine, and in part here is what he replied:

“Documentary photography is in National Geographic’s DNA, but we also embrace a wide variety of photographic approaches. We work with photographers from around the world who offer different points of view and stylistic approaches to story telling. We push them to grow, improve, never be satisfied with their work, and constantly raise the bar of excellence. They push us to be bold, passionate, innovative, and constantly evolving. I am convinced this dynamic relationship makes us richer and better. It also means we honestly and openly push the envelope, knowing that in order to grow and become increasingly relevant we have to be open yet remain true to our values.

National Geographic’s June 2013 cover isn’t the first studio portrait to grace the cover, nor will it be the last. In full transparency we stated in the magazine that the James Cameron portrait was digitally altered, in collaboration with the subject and the photographer. We felt strongly that we should put Jim on the cover because he represents National Geographic’s values in being named Explorer of the Year and the recipient of the Hubbard Medal. We know the cover is one of our most effective marketing tools in a competitive media environment. We wanted Jim’s portrait to be as powerful, provocative, and eloquent as possible and pull people into an issue packed with thoughtful content.
Thanks, again, for your interest in the June issue. Chris”

The members of the ethics committee have come to widely different conclusions as to the magnitude of the issue. Some thought it was a tempest in a teapot. Some thought it was merely part of the evolution of digital photography and quite in keeping with today’s standards. Some thought that, though the use of this cover was not an ethical problem, in the strict sense of being a violation of the Code of Ethics, it was not worthy of the values National Geographic has always represented to those of us who revere the magazine as the last bastion of documentary greatness.

What seemed to be a simple problem turned into a major debate on the value of “quality.” This makes me want to reread Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.


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