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Looking at the truth of a photo

What happens when a venerated news magazine and fledgling blog commit photojournalism malpractice?

I was surprised by the answer — and what it might say about our future.

Newsweek editors cropped a photograph of Dick Cheney last month to create a misleading impression. The full-frame image, taken by Pulitzer Prize winner David Hume Kennerly, shows Cheney carving meat and the Cheney family socializing in his daughter's home.

The chopped-up version zeroes in on Cheney, the knife and rare meat. A Cheney quote, "I am," accompanies the picture, his response to a question on Fox News Sunday asking if Cheney was okay with CIA interrogators going beyond legal authorization.

A couple of days prior, Sayanythingblog.com founder Rob Port had posted an aerial photograph a reader sent him, purporting that the image depicted the Sept. 12 Tea Party in Washington, D.C. The image shows a mass of people stretching from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, bolstering conservative claims that more people attended the rally protesting President Barack Obama's policies than traditional media outlets reported. The problem: It was from the Promise Keepers' rally 12 years ago.

Kennerly argued that Newsweek's usage put the photo out of context.

"By linking that photo with Mr. Cheney's comment and giving it such prominence, they implied something sinister, macabre or even evil was going on there," wrote Kennerly in an essay posted on the New York Times photo blog, Lens. "This radical alteration is photo fakery."

Newsweek shot back.

"Did we use the image to make an editorial point in this case — about the former vice president's red-blooded, steak-eating, full-throated defense of his views and values?" wrote Frank J. De Maria, vice president of corporate communications at Newsweek. "Yes we did."

Port admitted his mistake.

"Right away after I put it up, I got some comments saying that it was the wrong picture," said Port, who runs his blog from Minot, N.D. "And right away I put a correction up at the top of the page to acknowledge it was an erroneous picture."

Like many of my photojournalism colleagues, I view my role as being a visual journalist documenting the human experience. This includes politics, sports, entertainment and issues. If there is no candid moment to capture, I fall back on portrait, or even a photo illustration which can be an insightful way to depict a story. But if we do that, we label them so readers know what they are seeing.

Photojournalists use programs like Photoshop to tone a documentary photograph (just like we did in the darkroom era), and we don't digitally clone information like signs, poles and people from a photograph unless it's a photo illustration, and they are labeled as such. We're not allowed to stage or influence events. And I don't airbrush wrinkles out.

Our photographs, like the written word, should be an accurate, fair representation of the subject. I agree with Kennerly.

The magazine manipulated the photograph to purposely illustrate an editorial view. This violates the trust of the subject. And it violates a professional standard by treating Kennerly's work as it has no journalistic value.

To be clear, I would argue the same point if the image was of Obama or Hillary Clinton.

To be clearer, photo editors regularly crop images to remove extraneous information and emphasize the image's journalistic content. But cropping should enhance the photo, not change its meaning or take a picture out of context.

"You don't argue the fact that cropping is unethical," said Kenny Irby, visual journalism group leader at the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times. "Cropping is the equivalent of editing a photograph just like you edit a piece of text or a story. You make decisions for purpose of clarity."

Irby agrees with Kennerly. "Media organizations have to be careful about maintaining the integrity — especially — of historical photographs," Irby said.

Bloggers such as Port proliferate on the Web, providing a cacophony of information that does not pass through the traditional checks and balances of traditional news organizations. A lot of information they publish is fallacious. A lot isn't. News organizations have always argued that one thing that differentiates the amateur from the professional is the professional standard of accuracy, and integrity. As the Web increasingly smudges the line between the amateur and the professional, it is more important than ever that we adhere to professional standards of ethics and accuracy — so people can trust our work — rather than slip into sloppier standards of others.

The National Press Photographers Association promotes ethical practices that many news organizations adopt. Their code of ethics provides a concrete framework, which includes maintaining the storytelling content of an image. (Disclosure: I am a member of the NPPA.)

"Journalists are supposed to be about truth and accuracy," said Bob Carey, the NPPA's president. "I think Kennerly has a legitimate complaint that his photo was used to push an agenda instead of presenting the actual content that the photo was taken to be used for. It's kind of sad to me that the magazine has come up and said, 'This was our whole intent.' "

This discussion is not new.

Time magazine purposely ran a darkened O.J. Simpson booking mug on their cover to show that a pall had fallen on athlete's reputation in 1994. Critics accused the magazine of racism. Time printed a second, different cover and pulled the first.

In 2003, Los Angeles Times photojournalist Brian Walski combined two separate images to make one dramatic image from the Iraq war. The newspaper published the image, then a correction after a reader discovered the visual canard. The Los Angeles Times fired Walski.

Eric Strachan has worked 30 years as a photojournalist and editor. He contends that manipulating a documentary photograph equates to making up a quote or facts for a story.

"At the end of the day, what do we sell?" said Strachan, now a senior managing editor at the Naples Daily News. "We sell news coverage reported accurately and honestly. If you don't report accurately, your credibility is in danger. You're in danger of losing the very essence of what people come to you for."

Consider this glum study. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press recently published findings concluding that a paltry 29 percent of American adults believe news organizations correctly report the facts. Twenty four years ago, that figure was 55 percent.

So I say this to Newsweek and others like them:

Photojournalism is one storytelling medium in the journalistic pie composed of images, words, graphics, audio and video. To manipulate any of it for bias — to make it show what you want it to be rather than what it is — is breaching an implicit contract with the viewer and reader that the journalist will always strive to be truthful and fair.

Traditional news organizations should remember this point as they try to stay relevant — and profitable — in this changing media landscape.

Otherwise, we won't have a case in defending journalism for the 21st century.

Chris Zuppa has been a photojournalist at the Times for seven years. He can be reached by czuppa@sptimes.com.

Looking at the truth of a photo 10/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 10, 2009 4:30am]
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