Journalism and the Ethics of Photoshop

By Jennifer Janviere

The original Situation Room photograph. (Pete Souza/The White House)

The original Situation Room photograph. (Pete Souza/The White House)

The fields of both journalism and photography have undergone rapid and profound changes in recent years, and one of the biggest issues impacting both industries is the advent of digital editing and publishing software.

In the case of photojournalists, the range of digital retouching software such as Photoshop has in many ways made their jobs easier, allowing for rapid edits to lighting, cropping and the powerful ability to repair flaws. Results that once may have taken a combination of skill and painstaking effort to accomplish are now achievable with a few clicks of a mouse. And while this statement oversimplifies the skill and effort still required to produce a quality photo, any photographer will tell you that digital darkroom software is one of the most powerful tools in his or her arsenal.

These same photo editing tools have an alternate side, though. The ability to fix flaws or remove unwanted objects from an image also allows the photo editor to change the reality being presented to viewers. A talented Photoshop artist can dramatically and believably change the information that a photo conveys, swapping out  locations, things or even people present in the original. Because of this, photos, which were once taken as a factual record of an event, can no longer be accepted purely at face value.

This is harmless enough for photography intended for personal or fine art use, but what about images intended to be presented to the public as photojournalism? Where is the line drawn between removing things that detract from a composition and attempting the change the reality of what the viewer sees?

An example of this issue was recently brought to light when two New York-based newspapers Di Tzeitugn, and Di Voch published dramatically altered photographs to accompany a story about the death of Osama bin Laden. In the original photo, President Obama, Vice President Biden, key government figures and other White House staff members watch the action unfold on a television screen in the Situation Room. The image conveys the tension of the moment while capturing an iconic moment in American history.

Missing from the Di Tzeitung and Di Voch versions of the photo, however, are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and staff member Audrey Tomason.  The newspapers, both Hasidic Jewish publications, removed the two women from the photo because of a religious and cultural belief that showing photos of women is considered sexually suggestive.

This move sparked outrage from the American public and journalists everywhere, prompting Di Tzeitung to issue a public apology and its publisher to appear on CNN to explain the newspaper’s actions.

Regardless as to whether the decision to alter the image was spurred by religious belief, the fact remains that this move attempts to change the facts of the story and violates the ethics of the profession. Particularly now, as the profession undergoes in the rapid evolution, journalism must be held to high standard.

This story is also a valuable reminder that we as savvy consumers of media must remain vigilant and critical of everything that is presented to us as factual information.

As the saying goes, “don’t believe everything that you read.” Or in this case, don’t believe everything that you see.

Jennifer Janviere is an instructor and multimedia specialist for the Diederich College of Communication.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of Marquette University or the Diederich College of Communication.

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