Some thoughts on photojournalism ethics today
By Ethics committee members
John Long, Steve Raymer, Peter Southwick and Sean Elliot

There was an interesting confluence of ethics oriented events this week: AP dismissed a freelancer for digitally altering a photo; VOGUE magazine retouched a series of photos of Lena Dunham and was criticized for doing so by another magazine; and an online publication over-processed a photo of Edward Snowden raising the specter of the famous O.J. TIME cover – three incidents that exemplify the state of discussions surrounding photojournalism ethics today.

We have become quite sophisticated in our understanding of digital manipulation (the O.J. cover, for example), and while we have all but given up on VOGUE and similar celebrity publications ever “getting it” when it comes to photography, the credible news gathering organizations (AP in this case) have taken a much needed and appreciated hard line on ethics violations.

VOGUE produced a major piece on Lena Dunham, the force behind and star of the hit HBO show “Girls”, who is known for looking like a normal woman instead of a super model. The photos were reworked to make her look thinner etc. and a pigeon sitting on her head was added to one photo. “Jezebel,” a web site that criticizes celebrity magazines such as VOGUE, took issue with this “enhancement”, but unfortunately the criticism had nothing to do with the digital alteration of the photos. The issue they raised was the portrayal of women in VOGUE and other magazines of its kind. The manipulation of the photos seemed to be accepted as normal practice.

My question is this – if the photos are works of fantasy, why should we believe the words? If we can’t believe the photos of Lena Dunham why should we believe the story that accompanies them? If the words are expected to be accurate, shouldn’t the photos be accurate also?

As this issue was being debated, “The Fiscal Times” blog ran a story accompanied by a highly over processed image of Edward Snowden. The photo is one of the few available of Snowden and comes from “The Guardian.” It has been used many times by a range of publications and it may be that “The Fiscal Times” was trying to spice up their story with a bit of graphic overkill (or they made a technical error of gargantuan proportions), but it ended up reminding many people of the infamous O. J. TIME cover. TIME manipulated the police handout photo of O. J. Simpson and bragged about creating “an icon of tragedy”. In other words, they editorialized. They decided he was guilty and manipulated the photo to make him look guilty.

“The Fiscal Times” has a written policy that declares, “We strive above all to present fair and accurate information in every original news article that we publish.” Some who contacted the ethics committee thought the photo was an editorial along the lines of the TIME photo, that “The Fiscal Times” was trying to make Snowden look like a monster or at least evil.

Regardless of the reasoning behind the use of the photo, it flies in the face of their expressed ideals and is a mistake. Readers have become quite sophisticated in understanding how photography works and do not like being lied to in any way.

And yet, there is still hope. AP has severed all ties with Pulitzer Prize-winning freelance photographer Narciso Conteras after he admitted altering a photo he made in Syria. Conteras removed a small camera in the corner of his photo, enough for AP to say they would never use his services again. AP also went into their archives to delete every photo Conteras ever made for the wire service. This was an extreme but necessary measure in order to preserve AP’s credibility. It is the same action Reuters took several years ago when freelancer Adnan Hajj was found to have modified a photo he made in Lebanon. Reuters said they would never use him again and deleted every photo Hajj had made for Reuters.

Three separate incidents over the past few days, but each helps define the state of photojournalism ethics in 2014.

For further information on these issues, check these URLs:

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