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

Do Minor Touch-Ups Foretell a Slide Down the Slippery Slope?: 10/00

The phrase, "the slippery slope" describes a progression of unwelcome outcomes that begin with an innocent or small transgression. It is not unlike "domino theory" that was used as a justification for the US entering the Vietnam conflict. The theory went something like this: if Vietnam fell to the Communists so too would the neighboring countries of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and so on. The metaphor implies that if one country (or domino) fell, it would create the downfall of another and another until we would see the end of democracy (and have a bunch of tiles to pick up from the kitchen floor).

For the slippery slope metaphor to work, imagine being on a high vista that is the penultimate of all things good and ethical for the journalism profession. You are tempted to commit some small unethical act that causes you to slide a bit down the hill. From that slightly lower position, you are again tempted and the next act causes you to slip a little farther down the hill. Call it inclination or gravity, each subsequent act makes it easier to make the unethical choice until you are propelled toward your ultimate doom and professional destruction. The idea of the slippery slope is that you cause your own downward journey from which it is increasingly difficult to recover.

But while intuitively tempting, there is no reason to assume that the slippery slope predicts what will happen next. It is a fallacy in logic. The law of causality demands a linear progression of time and space: to get from A to C you sometimes need to go through B. However, to get to C, one can never predict precisely what B will be. In other words, what will be will be, but not necessarily.

The phrase, however, does carry weight when used to warn journalists of dangers to the profession. For example, Bill Moyers once said, "Once you decide to titillate instead of illuminate, you're on a slippery slope." In other words, when a journalist decides to entertain her readers rather than educate them, the result may be an increased tendency toward sensationalism and bottom-feeding consumerism in which this steady diet of bad journalism means that readers and viewers are satisfied with less.

But the slippery slope argument-whatever good it may do-has been used illegitimately to scare photojournalists away from all picture manipulations. A photojournalism instructor might warn her students never to tell a subject where to stand or what to do for fear that it might lead to picture management in which reality is forsaken for a dramatic, well composed image. In a similar way, photojournalists are warned away from the use of all image touch-ups as though cropping a picture leads one down a slippery slope to professional chaos. The threat of the slippery slope keeps journalists from doing their own moral reasoning. If one crops (or blurs, dodges, burns, corrects, and so on) for the wrong reason, there lies the danger. The trick is in knowing when touching up images does not constitute an ethical sin.

Remember the "hand of god" burning technique of the 1970s? What were we thinking? D.W. Griffith in his controversial 1915 feature-length movie, The Birth of a Nation, was one of the first visual artists to use that vignette technique to focus the viewers' eyes on a specific portion of the screen's action. And as with Griffith, my generation of photojournalists opened up the f-stops of their enlargers for the same reason. Such a technique was not considered unethical-we thought we were helping the reader get to the point of the picture faster and without distractions such as sky, telephone poles, or office walls. Today, thank god, god's hand has other things to keep it busy. But photojournalists can even more easily use filters and cut and paste techniques on their computers to eliminate pesky distractions to an otherwise wonderful decisive moment. What made this technique sometimes unethical then is what makes it sometimes unethical now-when the technique involves distortion of reality so that the viewer is unable to discern the visual truth.

And that brings up an interesting point about practical ethical behavior. What people perceive as unethical behavior may change over time and because of technological innovations. However, the reasoning behind acts to avoid remains the same: If you lie to your audience, if you perform acts that lead them to a false conclusion, if you create images rather than take them, you slide into the muck of unethical behavior.

Let's look at seven practical examples:

1) Was it wrong to eliminate a distracting post behind the head of Mary Vecchio in John Filo's Kent State picture? Yes, because an important historical photograph needs to be authentic and true to the actual scene with posts, warts, and all.

2) Should newspaper editors have approved darkening the blue sky behind the frightening trails of clouds during the Challenger space shuttle explosion of 1986? Yes, because without the contrast between the cloud and the sky, readers would not have been able to see the destruction clearly-as clearly as viewers could see the destruction at the scene.

3) Should the "red-eye" of the INS agent carrying Elian out the house been corrected by editors at Newsweek? Of course it should have been fixed. Why? Because such an illusion in which the direct flash bounces off the blood vessels in the back of the eyeballs is an artifact of the picture-taking process. A red-eyed devil is not what was seen at the event and should not be communicated as an objective message by a national magazine.

4) Should a photographer be asked to blur an anatomical feature that might be viewed as tasteless by many in the community if it were left in? Sure. Would you have really wanted to see that "Survivor" guy's butt on television?

5) If a well-known tennis player has strands of spittle hanging within her open mouth, is it proper to remove the strands? Perhaps, as long as the correction is made to anyone, regardless of gender, given the same circumstance and if the story remains the same without it. Bodily fluids sometimes tell the story, sometimes they are inconsequentially part of it, and sometimes only distract from it.

6) Should editors at the New York Daily News have created a composite photograph of Presidents Clinton and Castro about to shake hands during a United Nations gathering merely because no such picture existed? Of course not, because misleading readers with pictorial trickery, even with a "photo illustration" notice, only serves to devalue image credibility in this age of commercial expediency.

7) Should University of Wisconsin public relations personnel have digitally inserted the face of a smiling African-American student on the cover of its undergraduate admissions booklet to present an image of diversity during a Rose Bowl football game? No, because universities are expected to present the truth in all their publications and within the classrooms as well.

The difference with these situations has to do with aesthetics, etiquette, and ethics. Fixing red eyes and making the blue sky blue are done for aesthetic reasons; covering up a naked bottom and eliminating spittle are performed for etiquette reasons. These types of touch-ups, however, whether for aesthetic or etiquette reasons must be approved and performed by picture editors and not by backshop personnel. Deleting a post or creating a photo that never existed are ethical concerns that should not be performed by anyone on the staff. What is ethically important is the audience's perception of visual truth-don't change what they would have known to be true if they had been looking through your viewfinder.

It is more harmful for historical documents to be doubted than for potentially distracting elements to be haphazardly eliminated. It is more harmful for readers to miss the visual impact of a spaceship's explosion than to show a picture that is easily overlooked. It is more harmful to leave in a technical artifact with negative symbolism than to show a government agent as objectively as possible. It is more harmful to offend viewers than to show parts of the body that are made clear enough through the technology that creates the "cover." It is more harmful to let stand an embarrassing physical aberration than to concentrate on the inherent beauty of a defining athletic moment. And it is more harmful to create questions in the minds of readers about the nature of visual truth than to admit that a photographer missed the shot-whether of Clinton and Castro or a true image of racial diversity on campus. The Wisconsin case also points out that it is as ethically important not to distort or mislead-even for advertising and public relations purposes-as in news photography.

Moyers was wrong to suggest that illumination and titillation stand as poles between the penultimate and nadir of journalistic practice. The slope where journalists need to keep a firm foothold is the one between visual truth and distortion. And if the need for visual truth is kept in mind, journalists have little fear of slipping.

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