Ethics of news photos in a digital world
November 18, 2021
The other day a Facebook memory popped up with a photo of me with a giant elk. No, it was not one that I had killed. It was one of the Scheel’s photo booths.
At Scheel’s at the digital photo station you could at that time get your photo with an elk, deer, shark or bass.
What was even funnier is you can tell the photo is digitized, i.e., fake, but I had a few people congratulating me on my hunt – maybe some were tongue in cheek but I believe by a few comments some thought it was real.
In today’s technological world you can manipulate photos so much, which is a discussion I had with two students from the Washakie County Library’s recent “Accessible, Meaningful, and Purposeful Photography class” during a reception Saturday morning.
There was discussion about how photos need to be changed for blogs, for quilts and for newspaper.
We all agreed there is a huge difference between art and news photography.
Ethically, for a news photo there is not much you can or should manipulate. We take out some of the yellow when shooting photos in certain locations due to the overhead lighting.
If using a flash and the lighting is wrong and I get people with red eyes I will use the tool to remove the red eyes because I know those people did not have red eyes at the time I took the photo.
That’s the key in news photography. The news photo must tell the story of what was happening at that exact moment, where it was taken at that moment. You must not alter the story and altering the photo alters that story.
If you photoshop out things in the background of a photo because they may be distracting – that’s altering history, the history of that photo.
One of the students said they will combine photos to get the exact composite they want. You can do that for art. You can not do that when telling news through photos.
Ask Brian Walski, former staff photographer of the New York Times. A photo from the Iraq war in 2003 was actually a composite of two images but it ran in several newspapers.
The composite was discovered due to duplication of people in the “photo.” Yes technology today probably would have eliminated the duplication but it would still not have made it right.
But it was not just the duplication, the composite altered what had occurred, it in essence created a moment in history that did not happen.
In one legitimate photo a soldier is standing amidst a bunch of people sitting down. He is looking off to the left it appears. To the right nearby is a man holding a child and looking toward the soldier. The second legitimate photo shows the same soldier gesturing to the people and the man with the child is further in the distance looking away from the soldier.
The composite shows the soldier gesturing toward the man with the child, something that did not happen. Could it have happened? Yes, but it didn’t and as journalists, whether in written word or in photographs, we must always strive to be accurate and factual, in what we tell our readers.
According to Poynter.org article at the time, Walski wrote an email to the Times staff, stating in part, “I have always maintained the highest ethical standards throughout my career and cannot truly explain my complete breakdown in judgment at this time. That will only come in the many sleepless nights that are ahead.”
Kenneth Irby wrote in the Poynter piece, “We may never know what led Walski, a 25-year veteran who had been with the Times since 1998, to deceive the viewing world.
“But we do know that to best serve our profession and our readers, we can be ever vigilant and aware of the temptation that modern technology offers.”
His words that rang true in 2003 ring true today, perhaps even moreso.