Big Things Come in Small Mistakes

By Kelly Ann Bazely

The Fine Lie: When does fixing the photo become fixing the story? New organizations debate over the dark cloud that sometimes blurs the ethics of altering photos.

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The Bluffton University baseball team at their first game since a fatal bus accident. The original photo has a pair of legs beneath the far right banner.

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By Kelly Ann Bazely

David Cantor was the picture editor on duty that night. He approved a photo of the Bluffton University baseball team, huddling at its first game since a fatal bus accident. The photo ran on the front page of the Toledo Blade the next day, March 31, 2007. But something, or rather someone, was missing.

The photographer, Allan Detrich, had altered the photo by removing a pair of legs from the background.

Detrich refused to discuss the matter with King’s Journalism Review, but wrote in his blog, “It was what it was, but I wanted it perfect, and maybe that is where I went wrong, trying to be perfect, in the end showed my flaws…”

“For the editors that really worked with him, it was a very sobering moment,” says Cantor.

“One photographer can really bring down credibility of all photojournalism,” says Ryan Taplin, photographer at the Halifax Daily News.

The National Press Photographers Association code of ethics states that a photographer cannot manipulate images to “mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”

“We’re not trying to sell a pretty image, we’re trying to sell the truth and what happens in the world,” says Toronto Star photo editor Teras Slawnych. “And as soon as people think that they can’t trust the newspaper, then we’re losing the battle. We’re losing our readers, our faith.”

Photoshop is a graphics editing software developed by Adobe Systems. Features include changing the colours of an image, correcting redeye, lightening and darkening, modifying the size and the scale, cloning elements within an image, and overlapping two images. Photoshop and similar software programs are owned and used by almost all news media organizations. Most of them say that Photoshop should only be used for cropping, lightening, darkening, or sharpening a photograph. Physically adding or removing any element is prohibited, hence the issue with Detrich’s actions.

“It’s not supposed to be something to completely fix your photos. It’s supposed to be something to help touch them up,” says Taplin.

“You have tools, and you have rules how to use the tools,” says Canadian Press photographer Andrew Vaughn.

Yet controversies of distorted photos in the media keep arising. Photographers can’t always resist touching up news images to improve them photoethics

“It’s a slippery slope,” says Taplin. “Some people tend to get too involved in it.”

That is what happened to Detrich. And the photograph that lost him his job was not the first photo he had altered. It was later discovered that he submitted 79 altered photographs this past year.

He is not alone. Brian Walski was dismissed from the Los Angeles Times in 2003 for combining elements from two different photographs to make one more striking composition. Patrick Schneider was fired from the Charlotte Observer in 2006 for altering the colours in a photo for a visual effect.

Where most news organizations ban colour adjustments, the Toronto Star photo department code of ethics says that some colour balancing is acceptable. They add, “. . . these adjustments and enhancements should be used with great care and should not alter the integrity of the image.”

Andrew Tolson, photo director of Maclean’s magazine agrees with these guidelines: “I’m not talking about changing somebody’s skin colour or changing somebody’s sweater. It’s merely just pumping up the levels just to make things look better.”

Both Maclean’s and Time magazine have used photo illustrations on their covers. This means that the photos are manipulated, but labeled as photo illustrations to let the reader know that they are altered. Fore example, a recent issue of Maclean’s portrayed President George W. Bush as former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

“It’s always made perfectly clear,” says Tolson. “We don’t come out and say that this is a fabricated photo, but we’ll use some language that’ll tell people right away that this is a created photo simply to illustrate the story.”

So, one journalist or paper may allow some artistic license that another prohibits.

Crossing the Line

So at what point does an image become a lie?

“I think photo editing distorts the truth the moment you decide to create something that’s not there or change the colours from what they are in reality,” says Taplin.

Darren Pittman, photographer at the Halifax Chronicle Herald, tells of a photographer who took a picture on a gray day, then brightened the photograph and added some colour to make the sky a brilliant blue. He won a journalism award based on his brilliant blue sky.

“How blue is too blue?” Pittman asks.

“That’s an aesthetic call,” says Michael Creagen, freelance photographer and part-time photojournalism professor at the University of King’s College. But what are the ethics of aesthetics?

“There’s a gray area,” says Taplin. “When people use Photoshop for certain things, there are certain techniques that are considered acceptable by the industry.”

However, these normal techniques may also cause, willfully or not, changes to the components of the image. For example, by darkening a photo, a photographer can hide an element in the background.

“There are some things that people do that aren’t as cut and dry,” says Taplin. “If someone decides they don’t like a person in the photo, and he is going to start darkening it, it’s kind of considered to be okay to a certain degree.”

Likewise, by cropping a photo, a photographer can eliminate an element that he or she does not want to expose.

“If [Detrich] had cropped the frame right down along the side of the fence, and cut off the legs, then that would have been ok. But erasing the legs and leaving the rest of the background in is distorting reality. The legs are there and erasing them is unethical,” says Pittman.

Cantor agrees: “You use your crop to direct the reader’s eye through the image to make sure that the important part of the story gets seen. If you can make the story-telling part of the picture stronger by eliminating the clutter, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You’re enhancing the readers’ understanding of the photo.”

On the other hand, “You can actually distort the reality by cropping a photograph. That’s why it’s important when you are cropping a photograph to maintain the context with which the picture was taken,” says Vaughn.

When it comes to removing redeye, opinions also differ.

“The redeye would continue to stay in the shot. And that’s just to keep it constant and true,” says Slawnych.

Pittman disagrees. He would get rid of redeye.

Taplin would leave redeye, but he sees the other side. “Redeye is not reality,” he says. “When you’re looking at somebody, they don’t have redeye. They have whatever their eye colour is.”

So is there a gray area when it comes to photo ethics? Globe and Mail photo editor Moe Doiron doesn’t seem to think so. “There really is no gray area,” he says. “I don’t think it should be presented as a gray area. As far as we’re concerned, it’s black and white.”

Perhaps in theory there is no gray area to ethics, but the interpretations of tenets can widely differ.

Who’s to Blame?

“Photographers know it’s wrong. They enter the news business, and they know what the rules are,” says Creagen.

But Doiron disagrees: “It could just be a general lack of ethics, and not really understanding the responsibilities. Somebody might not realize it’s a problem.”

“I think often times when things go bad in newsrooms, the culture hasn’t been established of what we are doing here and where the lines are,” says David Swick, journalism ethics professor at the University of King’s College.

But how much responsibility falls on the shoulders of those assigned to check the images submitted by photojournalists?

In the case of Detrich’s photo, Cantor confessed: “Even though that night I could have bothered to look at the wire photos from the event, I didn’t. They were small thumbnails on my desktop and I wasn’t concerned because in just a casual glance, they looked so similar to what we had. But my staff editor and I didn’t even bother to look.”

Cantor says that he looks at approximately two thousand photos a day. At smaller newspapers, he says, there is a lot of multitasking.

“There are just not enough eyes to look at this material.”

In some cases, the touchups may be so slight that they easily slip by a busy editor.

Doiron agrees. “If somebody out there is very clever and they want to do it, and we don’t know, then there’s no way that I can guarantee that that’s not happening. I can trust that they’re not doing it, but we have a digital database of photos with a million photos in there. I can’t guarantee that every single photo in there has not been touched in someway. There’s a fair amount of human trust that has to happen.”

In the case of such slight changes, it becomes even more difficult to interpret the already ambiguous rules. The challenge of the responsible photojournalist and their editors, however, is to present the best images that still accurately represent reality.

Cantor says that he is not worried about the credibility of the Toledo Blade.

“The other photographers are very deliberate, and honest, and forthright,” he says.

But he thinks that photo distortion will happen again in the media.

“Every time you have a Brian Walski, Allan Detrich, or Patrick Schneider, everybody gets very alert to the situation and it dies down. And then once everybody gets lulled back in . . . then someone else thinks they can get away with it, and eventually they get found out.”

Creagen says, “A person like that has to be thrown out of the business. That’s all. You can’t change somebody’s character.”

As for not double-checking Detrich’s photo that one night, Cantor says, “You can be sure I don’t work that way anymore.” He says that the Toledo Blade has standardized guidelines for the photographers.

“Everyone’s marching to the same drummer now.”