Media credibility suffered yet another direct hit this month when Reuters, the London-based global news agency, distributed from war-torn Lebanon two photos that the free-lance photographer had altered.
In one image, an Israeli F-16 firing off one missile was changed to show three flares. In the other, the photographer added and darkened the smoke apparently enveloping a Lebanese city, ostensibly the result of an Israeli airstrike.
Suddenly, these unethical images have a name: Fauxtography.
These faux, or false, photographs are relatively easy to produce. Adobe’s Photoshop software allows users to manipulate digital images on the computer screen. Users may copy (clone) selected elements of an image. Or delete elements appearing in a photo. Or reposition elements.
Credit for being the first person to notice the faux photos goes not to a journalist or government official or military officer. Half a world away, artist and businessman Mike Thorson, of Janesville, Wis., saw the images while scanning Internet news sites. Something didn’t look right to Thorson, who is familiar with Photoshop, and he contacted Charles Johnson, whose blog is named Little Green Footballs.
As questions about the images’ authenticity hit the Web, Reuters investigated. The agency later acknowledged that Adnan Hajj, a free-lance photographer familiar to Western news organizations, had doctored the photos. It issued a "kill" order on use of the images.
Most magazines and newspapers, including the Telegraph Herald, use Photoshop. It is the industry standard – so much so that the product name is used as a verb (“Let’s Photoshop that background”). Like those other publications, we use Photoshop for cropping, toning, color balancing and removing minor imperfections such as the electronic “dust” from the camera’s data card.
Not too many years ago, back in the “wet darkroom” days, photographers and retouch artists would dodge (lighten), burn (darken) and airbrush away imperfections in a photo. [Note: Earlier in the day, and in the published column, I mistakenly transposed the descriptions of dodge and burn. Ugh! Sorry.]
Today, the professional standard for news photos is that technology may be used for these techniques – but the content integrity of the photo must be retained.
There have been many breaches. Nearly a quarter-century ago, National Geographic “moved” Egyptian pyramids to get them in better alignment for a cover image. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch removed a Coke can from a tabletop in a conference room setting. Newsweek magazine straightened the teeth of Bobbi McCaughey, the Iowan who gave birth to sextuplets in 1997.
The TH had its own incident. Ten or 15 years ago, in the first months of electronic editing, a young photographer shot a hockey game and, during electronic editing, “moved” the puck a couple of inches beside the goalie. The intention was to make the puck more visible (as opposed to trying to show the puck had or had not crossed the all-important goal line). Nonetheless, that action resulted in a reprimand and stepped-up training and internal communication about what is and is not permitted during editing.
Cosmetics is not behind those doctored photos from Lebanon. It is politics. And business: The more dramatic the “news” photo, the more likely a free-lancer will be able to sell it to a news agency.
The manipulation of news images using software is a serious matter. However, a bigger threat to media credibility might be manipulation of news scenes. Accounts from the Mideast tell of photographers and people on site (bombing survivors and rescue workers, for example) staging scenes or incidents. That can be tougher to ferret out than funny business with software. Is it coincidence that Hajj’s name is emerging in this discussion, too?