Honest photography is honest reporting

By Hannah Pachunka

Accuracy is the key in journalism. Truthful reporting is what separates professional news outlets from social media outlets.

Visual journalism is held to the same standard. If photographers edit their photos, they’ll lose their job—or even their careers.

“If you can’t use the picture as it is, don’t use it,” said John Long, NPPA’s chairman of the Ethics and Standards Committee in an interview with Donald R. Winslow in the 2007 News Photographer magazine published on NPPA.org.

This issue of ethics in photojournalism isn’t just due to poor editing. The photographer should be accurate with what he or she chooses to include or exclude in the take of photos.

Viewers are used to the digital world; they know how easy photo manipulation is.

“We have to be ambassadors of the truth,” said Stanley Greene, founding member of Noor Images, in The New York Times Lens blog. “We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard because the public no longer trusts the media.”

There are two types of photo alterations. The first type occurs when photographers set up a scene. Once the photographer intervenes, it becomes untruthful.

Setting up a scene is equivalent to a journalist fabricating a written story to make it more interesting, Greene said. However, if a subject starts to pose for the photographer, it should be acknowledged for the viewer. Transparency and honesty is necessary when explaining how an image was captured.

The second type of photo alteration is digital editing.

Altering background elements of a photo is also too drastic of a change. The pole in the background, looking like it’s coming out of the woman’s head makes for a bad composition. This published photo still portrays the focus of the photo, but inaccurately.

Photographer Allan Detrich had 79 of his photos revealed to be altered. The photo above is an example of editing that isn’t representational of what was happening. Without the basketball, the sports action photo isn’t as strong. Adding a basketball, so the photo can be used, caused this photographer to lose his job.

“I try to be honest with what I saw and find out what a picture means, and be wary of what me touching it is doing to change that meaning,” said Andrew Dickinson, a freelance photographer in Nebraska.

If a photo is altered, in a magazine for example, it should be obvious to the viewer that the photo was manipulated.

TV Guide used digitally put Oprah Winfrey’s head on Ann Margaret’s body. This alteration looks real, so viewers have no way of knowing that this was edited.

The other accepted instance is editing the photo to be more accurate of what was true to the photographer’s eye.

“If something didn’t look really blue and my camera didn’t catch it that way, I’ll edit the color,” Dickinson said. “Even cropping can be deceitful. I only edit toward what I saw.”

Editing photos in a way that is untruthful is unethical in journalism—it’s the same as lying in a written story.


Additional information was found on websites of The New York Times and National Press Photographer Association.

Photo source for examples were from slideshare.net.

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