A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana

All that Glitters May Be Too Bold:
Small Effects Speak to Larger Issues

Paul Francescutti of CKCO-TV in Kitchener, Ontario sent us an interesting e-mail.

He related a concern with a story he saw as part of a daily news feed that came from KUSA of Denver. The feature told of a woman who had lost her diamond wedding ring, but with good luck, it was found in the snow by another person. The return of it was caught on tape. "As the owner reached for the diamond in the finder's hand," Francescutti wrote, "a 'sparkle' of light emerged from the diamond." He and his fellow co-workers were suspicious that the 'sparkle' had been added in post-production using some type of special effects program.

Francescutti said that CKCO-TV follows the 11 articles stated in the RTNDA "Code of Ethics." The station is also an affiliate of the CTV (Canadian Television) network that has its own code of ethics. "We don't have access to 'after-effects' in our [editing] suites where this type of effect could have been added," Francescutti added.

At first we were skeptical. KUSA and its predecessor, KBTV (in 1977) has won the title of NPPA TV News Photography Station of the Year nine times, most recently for work in 1999. The silly effect just didn't seem like one that a station with such a high reputation for journalism values would let through the ethical crack.

But to our amazement, the 'sparkle' was added.

To his credit and to the credit of the station, Michael L. Harrity, Chief Editor for KUSA-TV wrote back promptly when we asked about the story. "I did find out that the sparkle effect was created in post-production for our news promotion on this story," Harrity admitted.

"Three different photographers/editors worked on this story," continued Harrity. "The final editor used it from the promotion. It is a rare case that any post-production is used in a news story, and I can assure you it was not meant to 'fool' the viewer. We have a high standard of ethics we try to live up to every day. I asked the editor to explain himself as if standing in front of an ethics committee, and he basically said that he never thought anybody would assume it was real because it looked so fake. There was no intent to deceive, and it was a light-hearted story so he thought there was no damage done. Patti Dennis (our news director) strongly disagreed and still thought it inappropriate to manipulate ANY video without making it clear to the viewer that it was re-created."

Your mail was a great reminder that even in the case of a light 'feel good' story, we must be careful not to change the facts or the video which might influence our viewers, or change the meaning of the message" (emphasis added).

It is not surprising that Harrity has a high standard of ethics-he's co-chair of the Editing Division of NPPA's annual TV News Photography and Editing Contest.

But some questions immediately came to mind:

  • Do you now or will you adopt some sort of in-house rules that attempt to prevent such editing decisions in the future? Will there be meetings with the staff to talk about this practice?

  • Why was the sparkle used-even for a promotion? Like the argument offered by some that manipulation to a magazine's cover picture is allowed because it serves as an advertisement, did commercial reasons (i.e. competition) drive the decision?

  • Does one crew work on promotions and another works on news reports?

  • Do editors ever use other procedures in their stories: re-enactments, rehearsals, music, dissolves, slow motion, and so on? Is there a line between news, features, and light features in relation to ethical issues?

    For Associate Professor Edward J. Fink, Chair of the Radio-TV-Film Department at California State University, Fullerton, this sort of manipulation is most likely sparked by competitive (commercial) pressures. "TV news is first and foremost a business," Fink says. "It exists to make a profit for the stations that produces or buys it. That means ratings are king. So if a news director-reporter-editor believes that s/he can help boost ratings in some way, s/he will probably do that. So with manipulated images and sounds, if one newscast uses it, and that newscast gets ratings, others are bound to copy."

    But for Fink, the effect is ameliorated by the context of the program. "For me the context is the key," states Fink. "If the package runs on a program that bills itself as a true newscast, such as a local news show, then I think adding a digital sparkle to a ring is not correct. Though some might argue this is merely enhancing what is actually there, I personally find the enhancement unethical if the show is promoting itself as presenting traditional, hard-core news. If the story appears in a tabloid program, however, such as 'Access Hollywood,' which I most certainly do NOT consider to be a news program, I would cut the people a little more slack. The objective of 'Access Hollywood' is first entertainment, then information; whereas, the objective of a local news show is first information, then entertainment."

    In national surveys sent to photojournalists, editors, and educators, as if guided by a single voice, all exclaim the same concern: The most serious threat to the integrity and credibility of photojournalism images-whether for still or motion presentations-is computer manipulation.

    Almost 10 years ago, Howard Chapnick eloquently summed up the dangers to journalism with such manipulations: "Credibility. Responsibility. These words give us the right to call photojournalism a profession rather than a business. Not maintaining that credibility will diminish our journalistic impact and self-respect." Hal Buell of the Associated Press once said, "Ethics is in the mind. It is not in the tools you use." Robert Gilka, former director of photography for National Geographic said that manipulating images is "like limited nuclear war. There ain't none." The threat to credibility is irreversible if the public starts to mistrust the integrity of news images.

    The first time many learned that a new age in photo retouching had dawned were the reports of cable mogul Ted Turner using computerized colorization techniques on classic, black-and-white movies. The motive was profit-it was hoped viewers would be more attracted to the color versions. Profit was the motive for the A Day in the Life books of America, Australia, Canada, and California. All had cover pictures manipulated by computer technology.

    Some argue that a cover photograph for a book or magazine or a promotional piece for a news cast can be altered in order to achieve maximum impact because the image is designed to attract potential buyers or viewers just like an advertisement or commercial. Sean Callahan, former editor of American Photo says that covers are sales tools that are used to attract browsing newsstand buyers. "There is tremendous competition in that kind of environment and so you have to do something to get [buyers'] attention," Callahan said.

    Photographic truth is an elusive, often subjective, concept. Commercial demands, personal presumptions about how a subject's story should be told, deadline pressure panic, unreasonable editors, an image's eye-catching ability, and interjecting political, religious, or personal beliefs can all demean the credibility of the image, the photojournalist, and the media institution.

    John Long of the Hartford Courant and former president of the NPPA, probably said it best:

    "Each day when you step out onto the street, remember that you have been granted a sacred trust to be truthful. You have the responsibility to produce only honest images. You have no right to set up pictures; you have no right to stage the news; you have no right to distort the facts. Your fellow citizens trust you. If you destroy the credibility of your work, even in small ways, it destroys the credibility of your newspaper or TV station in the eyes of the people you are covering" (emphasis added).
    It's just a sparkle added to a story to catch a viewer's attention and used to emphasize the precious quality of the cherished object. Not a big deal, right? But perhaps it is also symbolic of the concern many have about commercial interests interfering with the news product.

    Fortunately, the folks at KUSA understood the symbolism and took appropriate steps to protect their station's and the profession's credibility.

    When KUSA News Director Patti Dennis found out about the sparkle effect, she immediately contacted Harrity and said to him, "Mike, let's follow up on this and make sure it doesn't happen again." Harrity said about Dennis' call for better ethics, "An appropriate response, I thought."

    We do too.

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