Journalistic integrity

I’ve been reading a couple of books recently on photojournalism, one by the editors of Time, the other by the editors of National Geographic, and it’s brought up some things I’ve kicked around in my head for a long time regarding how we think of photojournalism, and most especially editing. Lucky you now gets to read them, if you skip below the break.

First off, I don’t do much of any photojournalism myself. I’ve dabbled a bit, practicing the style when shooting weddings and doing some event photography, but I’ve never gone out to shoot expressive news photos. I recognize that it is probably one of the hardest photography fields known, in that the photographer not only has to catch events as they are happening, but be in a position and with crucial timing to compose a story from it as well, and this is demanding. It’s easy to be on the wrong side, miss the height of the action, and simply have rotten conditions to try and shoot within. The photos we think of when we talk of photojournalism are often extraordinary efforts that most of us could never dream of accomplishing.

Now, there are some interesting aspects of it as well. One of the biggest issues with news photos is the possibility that they have been altered in some way, “Photoshopped.” There is a very strong resentment to the idea that a news photo does not exactly represent reality, and even minor edits are considered bad form, even to the point of misconduct. I am reminded of one sports photo where the legs of someone visible under a banner were touched out because they distracted from the subject in the foreground.

In a way, I understand this, since this is photography, not painting, and the idea is that you’re capturing a particular scene – that’s the talent part, putting together the elements to make reality artistic or expressive. But the standards are also very strange, somewhat fueled by media attention. As one example, take the famous photo from the Kent State University incident (I have linked to this one because it illustrates what I’m discussing, and also includes proper credits.) One photo editor was faulted for touching out the pole that extends from Mary Vecchio’s head.

Now, think about this. The pole adds absolutely nothing to the scene, the news item, the story, the anguish, or the composition. It’s simply a distraction, and one that photographers are reminded to avoid. The photographer, John Filo, certainly can’t be faulted for it – had he worried about choosing his angle against the background, he would likely have missed the shot, and the Pulitzer Committee certainly wasn’t concerned enough about it. Chances are you never noticed it until I pointed it out. So what, exactly, is the issue? Should editing the photo be considered a minor effort to improve the overall appearance, or should it remain as it was because it reflects accuracy?

If you haven’t answered that question for yourself yet, do so now, so I can continue. Because it’s also relatively easy to find versions of this image that were printed with selectively different contrast, so that the blood trail passing behind Vecchio is bleached out entirely. It would seem that some editors didn’t have a problem with using the image of the death of Jeffrey Miller, but didn’t want it too accurate.

Now, we enter into the realm of editorial decisions, which are made for every photo used in a news setting. Usually, there is a selection of photos of any event, and only one or two are chosen. Are they chosen for the consideration of strictly accurate portrayal of the event, or are they perhaps chosen because they give a distinct impression? Are others, which may change that impression, purposefully unseen?

There’s also the printing process. It’s easy to make adjustments to any image during printing, and it is routinely done: contrast, white points, color corrections, dodging and burning (selectively lightening or darkening only portions of an image,) cropping… it’s all part of standard darkroom work, and Ansel Adams considered it paramount to achieving the proper image, though it’s true, most people recognize that Adams did “art,” which is held to different rules. But the fact of the matter is, there is no specific process in the darkroom to produce accuracy. And if you consider that, then you lead inevitably to the idea that no photograph taken, regardless of process or media, represents reality. There is always some factor altered, from color rendition to lens distortion and perspective to contrast and resolution.

This brings us, naturally, to the efforts the photographer makes as well. The photographer chooses the angle, the perspective, and the moment to capture – and those not to use, too. They may be waiting specifically for the look of anger or joy, boredom or consternation, and these might represent only a fleeting moment of time in contrast to whatever else is happening. There is an art to photojournalism, and it remains the same as any other form of art, in that the artist chooses what they want to incorporate in order to express something in their mind. Changing position so that the distracting element cannot be seen in the image does not cause it to cease existing in reality, but it was selectively edited out of the image – just before the image was even made.

Now, consider the written part of the story. Does the reporter provide an accurate view of reality, an objective look at all elements of the event, details of the distractions and background actions? Does the editor leave in the reporter’s bad sentences, misuses of words and misspellings, awkward transitions and run-on paragraphs? Does the media outlet strive for accuracy and objectivity, without giving in to any kind of bias, slant, or agenda?

Yeah, right. So we apparently understand and accept that the reporting might be edited, but resent it deeply when an image is? We know that the reporting shows only one perspective and will not be totally objective, but we cannot face the same from the image that illustrates it?

Again, I understand this in a way, because we’ve come to expect that photographs are the proof, the recording that is not subject to bias, the capture of things as they were. But in reality, this is a grey area all on its own, and while the accuracy may be higher, it’s far from absolute.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not condoning photo editing for news usages. I’m simply wondering about the ways that we view it. The pole in the background and the blood on the pavement are both elements of the original image, and only a small fraction of the scene that would greet your eyes had you been there. But it’s possible (and has happened several times) that a photographer or editor is fired for altering a photo in a minor way, but the reporter is held to no such rules, and realistically cannot be – there is nothing we do that is not subject to some form of internal bias. National Geographic received no small amount of flak for moving a pyramid in a cover shot; Time received the same for altering OJ Simpson’s mug shot for their cover. Both were intended as illustrative images, and had they been painted or drawn, no one would have questioned the portrayal from the specific perspective of the artist. Is this odd? Does this actually mean that artists are allowed greater personal expression than photographers, or simply that photojournalism does not count as expression? Once you have your answer about that, then ask if it applies it to photographs of non-journalistic uses.

By the way, when searching for these images, I selected the Museum of Hoaxes site because it provided both examples and more objective text – and the note about the photographer of the Geographic shot is a nice perspective on the whole situation. (Wait, what? He complained about his own image being altered but he paid the camel caravan to pose?) If you look for other examples of these images, however, you can find some really scathing indictments of such practices.

Again, I have no firm stand on this, and I don’t feel there are rules that can be made to apply effectively. I just find it curious as to how it’s viewed, and how we create our standards. And I find it interesting to consider that, being a photographer, people may be reading this post with the belief that I have my own bias on the matter, and that this belief forms their own bias ;-)

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