Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy,
University of South Florida
Paul Elliott, Professor of Communications,
California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

Reading and Seeing:
When Words and Pictures Collide

(c) 2004

Visual journalists learn early that they better get names and other details right.

When a photographer misspells a person's name, mistakenly juggles the order of those pictured, or mistakenly describes through carelessness an event portrayed, the result can be embarrassing. But when words are used to justify a picture that ought not to have been used in the first place, the resulting word-picture combination is unethical.

As usual, photographic history provides some interesting examples when words used to explain an image create controversy.

French tax collector and diorama artist Louis Daguerre, aided by the pioneering work of fellow countryman Joseph Niepce, and his son Isidore, invented the first practical photographic process in 1839 and modestly named it the daguerreotype. The French government rewarded the inventors by giving a generous annual pension to Daguerre and Niepce. However, in 1839, French competitor Hippolyte Bayard (and an Englishman, Henry Fox Talbot as well) independently discovered an equally useful and important photographic process. However, Bayard was not so honored by his government.

Frustrated by the lack of recognition and funds, Bayard created a fake photo and cutline in 1840. On the back of a print that presumably showed his corpse after it was retrieved from the Seine, Bayard wrote, "The Government, which has supported Monsieur Daguerre more than is necessary, declared itself unable to do anything for Monsieur Bayard, and the unhappy man threw himself into the water in despair." Two years later, the Societe d'Encouragement pour I'Industrie Nationale gave Bayard a prize of 3,000 francs, showing that then, as today, unethical behavior is sometimes rewarded.

Moving forward a mere 140 years, we need only look at the well-photographed moment of a tragedy to remind us that text must match pictures. In 1986, family members of teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe were photographed with open mouths and tears. The cutline of the globally reproduced photo misattributed the family reactions to the explosion of the spacecraft that occurred after the picture was taken. However conveniently misreported, the family's tears were those of awe in response to the lift-off, not in response to the explosion.

In June 1994, Time and Newsweek covers featured the mugshot of OJ Simpson. Matt Mahurin's darkened face of Simpson on the Time cover received a firestorm of criticism. Lost in the public fury was the fact that Newsweek's cover was manipulated by text. While both covers used large red text under Simpson's vacant gaze, Time wrote, "An American Tragedy," with the vague implication that the country as a whole was to blame. Newsweek, on the other hand, was far more pointed in its textual implication, "Trail of Blood."

That same year, editors at New York Newsday used photo-illustration to hype an already heated controversy. Feuding Olympic skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan (please let this be the last time we write their names) were pictured large on the front page, skating together. The headline read, "Tonya, Nancy to meet at practice." The cutline attempted to justify the fake photo with, "Tonya Harding, left, and Nancy Kerrigan, appear to skate together in this New York Newsday composite illustration. Tomorrow, they'll really take to the ice together." Despite the clarifying cutline, the newspaper was broadly criticized. Why? People first believe what they see. Often, clarifying words are read secondarily if at all.

The latest "read my words, not my visual" controversy is the pictures of presidential candidate John Kerry used during the current campaign. The most obvious manipulation is the phony photo that combined a picture of Kerry taken by Ken Light and a Jane Fonda photo take by Owen Franken at two different rallies. The photo, which first appeared on various Web sites included the cutline, "Actress and Anti-war Activist Jane Fonda Speaks to a crowd of Vietnam Veterans as Activist and Former Vietnam Vet John Kerry (LEFT) listens and prepares to speak next concerning the war in Vietnam." (See The excessive use of uppercase letters in the cutline alone should have been a giveaway to the discerning viewer that the photo was a fake.

In a 492-word New York Times story about Senator John McCain's feud with a fellow veteran and Kerry-baiter, the phony photo was explained in the last two sentences with 46 words. Light's original Kerry picture and the manipulated photo accompanied the story. The cutline for the fake read, "This doctored photo circulating on the Internet places Jane Fonda, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, next to John Kerry."

Despite the accurate cutline, a casual viewer might miss the words, or let the photo confirm what he or she already thinks is true. Taking a lesson from the Harding-Kerrigan photo-illustration, unless it is obvious that a reasonable viewer believe that the image is false, it is wrong to run fake photographs.

The less clear ethical question arises with the now well-known Labor Day 1970 photograph take by photojournalist and NPPA listserv contributor Leif Skoogfors. That photo was taken at an anti-Vietnam War rally at Valley Forge and inadvertently captured John Kerry's out of focus head hovering to the upper left of Jane Fonda. Both the website and the Washington Times, in its February 11 publication of the photo, wrote that the picture showed Kerry and Fonda "together." The Washington Times cutline described Kerry as "directly" behind Fonda. These words imply a relationship that did not exist.

The Los Angeles Times was slightly more accurate in stating that the two were "sitting in a large crowd several feet apart." Skoogfors, however, has reported that the two were 15 to 25 feet apart when the photo was taken. His 180mm telephoto lens narrowed the field so that Kerry and Fonda appeared closer than they actually were.

It is rare that the words accompanying images receive critical scrutiny, but they should. Whether as static headlines, crawling text, voice-over explanations, stories, bylines, captions and/or cutlines, the text that accompanies pictures should be subject to rigorous journalistic standards as the images themselves. And since words often cannot adequately ameliorate the impact from a faked picture, editors should be careful about printing manipulated images especially in a charged political season.

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