Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Director, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana
Paul Elliott, Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

Manipulation: The Word We Love to Hate
Part Three

August was quite the manipulative month. Editors "blended" two photos to make a more eye-catching cover shot for Page One. Another removed a competitor's name off the back of a sports jersey. And a photographer was asked to give back his awards when it became clear that he had blackened out the background of some of his images. And these were just the ones we know about through recent NPPA listserv rants.

As we've discussed in the previous two columns, picture manipulation, in its neutral application, is nothing more than a description of how visual journalists do their professional best. Every journalist "manipulates" a scene in the field by choosing camera angle and focal point and by editing the tape or cropping the still back at the office. But, manipulation becomes ethically problematic when the resulting product deceives or cheats the viewer.

Deception, philosophically speaking, is any action (or failure of action) that intentionally leads others to a false conclusion. Cheating occurs whenever an individual intentionally violates a rule or social convention that others reasonably believe that person to be following.

Understanding the technical definitions for deception and cheating makes it possible to clarify just when photo manipulation crosses the line between what is morally permissible and what is not.

Computers and other advanced technologies have made it easier to enhance images. But, zooming in for a close up or zooming out for a wide angle view, dodging, burning, cropping and cutting are professional tools that have been used for years to help viewers focus on the best representation of the story subject. An ethical enhancement, whatever the method, is one that results in an accurate portrayal of the significant element of what viewers could have seen, if they had been on the scene. Any other manipulation is morally questionable when used in news whether still photography or videography.

Viewers are deceived when elements of a shot, that they would have seen in context, are removed. When copy editor and writer Ed Early and sports editor Gary Hyvonen of the North County Times removed the competing San Diego Union-Tribune name from a sports jersey in a photograph by JT Lovette and when Charlotte Observer photographer Patrick Schneider altered backgrounds from some of his news photos submitted to the 2002 North Carolina Press Photographers Association contest. Viewers were deceived. If they had been in the field, they would have seen elements in the context of the shot that were missing upon publication of the photo. The fact that Schneider's pictures were meant for a photography contest should make no difference.

Deceptive elimination of elements is different from cropping a shot to remove extraneous elements that lay outside the area of intentional focus. That elimination serves to focus the significant factors for the viewers.

Certainly, visual journalists can choose a deceptive angle, such as focusing on the few violent individuals at a peace rally or shooting a political candidate's speech so that it looks, inaccurately, as though there was hardly anyone attending. But, even when the visual journalist begins with the intention of taking pictures that most accurately represent the subject, it is imperative that nothing be removed from the focal area that was there in context.

Cheating is a slightly different matter, ethically speaking. Cheating can happen even without intentional deception. Viewers are cheated when visual journalists and news managers violate conventions that viewers expect those producing the news to follow. Specifically, viewers believe that photographs that appear in the editorial pages of a newspaper or video clips that appear as part of a news program represent a moment in time that actually occurred. That is why it is wrong to create photo illustrations for Page One, even if the cutline admits the manipulation was accomplished through PhotoShop's paint bucket, or some other means. Few readers will know what that phrase means; and it should come as no surprise that, for almost all viewers, when visual and textual messages are in conflict, readers will remember the visual--the visual message wins out.

Another way of making ethical sense out of which photo manipulations are acceptable and which are not, is to use another philosophical tool--reasoning by analogy. Just what is it like to blend two photos to make an impressive front page cover? Keith Anderson, the Arizona photojournalist who objected to the blending of two of his photographs suggests that maybe, to help editors understand his outrage, he should ask to "edit a story, so I can add hyperbole, strident language, superlative adjectives, and maybe make up a little something."

Perhaps a third way of making sense of ethical manipulations is to remind ourselves that as professionals, we stand in the place of the reader/viewer. Aldous Huxley, most famous for his novel Brave New World also wrote a book describing the method he used to recover some of his eyesight, The Art of Seeing. In it he described three kinds of seeing: sensing (having eyes that operate properly and enough light), selecting (focusing on a particular spot within a visual array), and perceiving (understanding the meaning of what you are looking at). A visual journalist is the surrogate eyes for a reader or viewer. She determines through education and experience the camera's controls necessary to make proper exposures, what key elements of a scene to concentrate on to best tell a story, and ways to communicate to the general public the meaning and significance of what is being pictured (with the aid of words and graphic design choices). Being a surrogate for the public is a huge responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Deception and cheating have no part in the process.

In journalism, it is important that the audience be able to believe what they read. It is equally important that they believe what they sense, select, and perceive. This basic journalism tenet is true regardless of the category of manipulation--aesthetic, economic, or political.

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