Failing to cover a journalistic crime

PhotoshopCSAltering photographs is nothing new, especially in this digital era. When applied to the news business, it is a Jason Blair-style crime along the lines of plagiarism and fabrication — maybe worse because altered images are sometimes difficult to detect and images are so powerful. The media watchdogs have largely failed in covering this issue of altered and staged photographs, and they are failing the public.

Here is Stephen A., commenting on an earlier post on the Reuters photographer:

Larry is right to point to LGF. The blogs have torn apart the pathetic and biased coverage of the conflict.

Not only the doctored (plural) pictures used by Reuters, but the use of misleading pictures, has been exposed. Such as the woman, dressed in the same outfit, mourning the destruction of her home, only the pictures were taken in front of two separate buildings two weeks apart, and passed off as two incidents. I won’t spell out the motives here.

Posted by Stephen A. at 12:07 pm on August 8, 2006

Why has this incident — and what appear to be other incidents — received so little coverage? Where is Howard Kurtz? Is he too busy interviewing Katie Couric? The usually on-the-ball media critics at National Public Radio’s On the Media have not yet mentioned the scandal.

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times wrote a powerful column on this subject Saturday. Here’s a snippet:

There are, however, two problems here, and they’re the reason this controversy shouldn’t be allowed to sputter to its inglorious conclusion just yet: One of these has to do with the scope of what strongly appears to be wider fabrication in the photojournalism Reuters and other news agencies are obtaining from their freelancers in Lebanon. The other is the U.S. news media’s grudging response to the revelation of Hajj’s misconduct and its utter lack of interest in exploring whether his is a unique or representative case.

Thus far, only a handful of relatively brief stories on this affair have appeared in major American papers. The Times picked up one from the Washington Post, which focused mainly on the politics of Johnson’s website. The New York Times, which ran one of Hajj’s photos on its front page Saturday, reported that it has published eight of his pictures since 2003, but none were altered. It then went on to quote other papers about steps they take to detect fraudulent images. No paper has taken up the challenge of determining whether there’s anything dodgy about the flow of freelance photos Reuters and other news agencies — including the Associated Press, which also transmitted images made by Hajj — are sending out of tormented Lebanon.

It’s too bad this is an opinion column listed under entertainment news, because this altering and staging of photographs is one of the biggest media scandals of the year. Rutten, who comments on issues relating to the media, even picks up on a religion ghost that is sure to draw some controversy:

It’s worth noting in this context that there is no similar flow of propagandistic images coming from the Israeli side of the border. That’s because one side — the democratically elected government of Israel — views death as a tragedy and the other — the Iranian financed terrorist organization Hezbollah — sees it as an opportunity. In this case, turning their own dead children into material creates an opportunity to cloud the fact that every Lebanese casualty, tragic as he or she is, was killed or injured as an unavoidable consequence of Israel’s pursuit of terrorists who use their own people as human shields. Every Israeli civilian killed or injured was the victim of a terrorist attack intended to harm civilians. That alone ought to wash away any blood-stained suggestion of moral equivalency.

So why is this issue not being explored more thoroughly? All The New York Times managed to come up with is an article looking at the complexities of altering photographs. The only thing that I learned here was that the Soviet Union had an entire department devoted to altering photos. Time‘s Arts section had a much more honest, if brief, look at the subject — but with little investigation and more pondering.

Perhaps this is because a blogger uncovered, and continues to uncover, altered and staged photographs. Are the big media outlets tired of being scooped by bloggers? Perhaps it is because people alter photographs more often than anyone is willing to admit, particularly at big media institutions. As a person who used to do a bit of sports photography in college, I know how often photos are edited and cut down to create the most dramatic effect. At one point does one cross the line into altering or staging an image that violates basic journalistic ethics?

Why have the media given the Reuters photographer, whom they say is freelance, what essentially amounts to a free pass? He was caught trying to make an image of war more dramatic, and clumsily at that. He says it was an oversight, but that does not explain why he was altering the photo. Does he sympathize with Hezbollah? What about his photographs that were picked up by the Associated Press? Does AP need to pull those photos?

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  • ralphg

    In a way, all photographs lie, because the photographer (1) crops the photo from the full scene; and (2) takes the most dramatic photographs.

    As an example, coverage of the World Cup of soccer usually showed excited fans. I was at a game where the photographers jumped up and took photos of us whenever the fans stood up and cheered. But most of the time the fans sat, talked to each other, wandered off for a beer.

    The photos of cheering fans were not representative of the soccer game, but the representative photos (still fans) would be dull.

    In the same way, pictures from Lebanon or New Orleans show destruction; there aren’t many pictures we get to see of unaffected areas.

    And so the dredful (or the exciting) becomes the norm. Instead of the norm being the norm.

  • Mollie

    RalphG, You were at World Cup? AWESOME.

    Anyway, I was thinking of how I now don’t believe any photos I see from Lebanon. A combination of the news about how the photos were staged and how some were just photoshopped.

  • David

    Admittedly, photos are often posed and/or ignore the mundane moments. But Rutten hits the nail on the head with the “propagandistic” reference. It really does cast a cloud over any hint of journalistic integrity (us readers would hope the photographers are at least ATTEMPTING to convey the reality of the scene rather than making pronouncements).

    “When the ratings point the cameras eye, You can state the facts while telling a lie” – Meat The Press (Steve Taylor)

  • halflight

    At one point does one cross the line into altering or staging an image that violates basic journalistic ethics?

    Coming from a profession (the law) that gets plenty of criticism for ethics, I’ve got a suggestion.

    When an attorney is trying to get a photograph entered into evidence during a legal proceeding, he is required to produce the photographer to testify as to the accuracy of the photograph. There are stock Q&As that the lawyer and witness must address: who took the photograph; when it was taken; where it was taken; and–most importantly to this conversation–whether the print offered to the court as evidence accurately represents the scene at the time the photograph was taken.

    If the witness has produced a doctored photograph, or has manipulated the scene, he is subject to prosecution for perjury.

    If the attorney knowingly submits a doctored photograph or subporns perjury, he gets disbarred.

    Perhaps media outlets should require their freelance photographers to sign sworn affidavits as to the accuracy of photographs before they are paid. If the photographer fraudulently sells the media outlet a doctored photograph, the media should sue and/or seek criminal prosecution for theft by fraud.

  • dpulliam

    Halfight, you would think that would be a reasonable standard to follow. In this particular instance, the photographer was fired and it seems to be the case in previous instances.

    I took a photography class back in college and learned that the goal of a photojournalist was not necessarily to get the flashest photo but the photo that described the scene. So if one is reporting on a car crash, you try to get the scene that best describes the accident, not necessarily a body or a person in a sensitive situation.

    I think we need to hear from a professional, but I see the free-lancer method as inherently flawed due to the facts that Ralphg raises. The competition for the flashiest photo is just too tough. Perhaps credible news organizations need to consider hiring more photographers and have them team up closer rather than relying on stringers. Of course in an era of shrinking news budgets that’s going to be tough to sell.

  • MattK

    Sorry about the piling-on, but like many of the commenters here I just don’t put much faith in newspaper/newsmag photos. For me it hit me that they aren’t trust worthy when I saw three soldiers posed in combat-like positions with the caption that said “Soldiers from the Army Infantry Battle Insurgents.” Except the angle of the photo would have had the photograper between the soldiers and the insurgents (not very likely), no fingers were on triggers, and two of the soldiers were in non-prone positions in open ground (I guess they were trying to make it easy for the insurgents.). Anyway, when I saw that posed-for picture with that caption I pretty much hung up the phon on news photos. Give me those funny drawings in the wall street journal any day. (And I love their Houses of Worship column, too.)

  • Jennifer

    The ‘same woman, different building’ question was already answered by Reuters. Both images were taken on the same day, in the same place, by the same photog. It was the purchasing papers who misdated them. Worse case scenario, this is all a warning to keep a closer eye on freelancers, who are more than likely ‘spicing up’ photos not to somehow skew public opinion about the war, but to make more $$ with a more compelling shot. The reaction has been overblown and overanalyzed.

  • c.tower

    Here’s something that puts it all in perspective… Comic book hero Spider-man has been involved in a storyline in which he’s revealed his secret identity as news photographer Peter Parker to the world. As a result, his past journalistic efforts have been called into question- after all, he HAS been manipulating the news to hide his secrets. The story’s still playing out, but the writers ARE taking the issue seriously…possibly more seriously then some real-life newsmen…

  • Larry Rasczak

    Well at least J. Jonah Jameson is still on the job!

    But you asked So why is this issue not being explored more thoroughly?

    Lets examine what happens if this story IS followed up on.

    A) The MSM as a whole has to admit that they are about as easily manipulated as Play Doh. This makes them looks sloppy and incompetent at best, downright biased (if not treasonous) at worst. (This is probably part of why Fox is starting to cover the story, they love to make their competition look bad… not that that is terribly hard mind you….) If this gets the attention it deserves you will CNN will sees their ratings drop, (again) the NYT will see its credibility and circulation numbers drop (again) , both will see their stock price drop (again).

    B) Follow up on this and the reporters will look like they aren’t researching their stories or doing anything more than a “rip and read” of Reuters copy. This makes them look like poorly educated people who were only hired for their looks (if on T.V.) or their college connections (if print media).

    C) The editors will look like fools for deciding to dismantle their big old (expensive) news divisions, closing their (expensive) overseas bureaus, getting rid of their (expensive) “our man in Fubaristan” reporters (who actually knew what was going on in Fubaristan), so they could instead rely on (cheap) local “freelancers” who they know nothing about and do not supervise in any way.

    D) Even more importantly, the editors will have to admit that (shockingly enough) someone who thinks that murdering hundreds of innocent civilians in the name of their cause is a great and wonderful thing is not above lying to help their cause too!

    D is the real killer here. Once you admit that there is a MORAL dimension here, (not religious but MORAL… as in “One side tries very hard to avoid killing innocent civilians and the other side deliberately makes it their objective to kill as many innocent civilians as possible.”) then you get into some very uncomfortable places… well uncomfortable if you are an NYT editor.

    Follow this train of thought and you run into problems like “If these guys who blow up pizza parlors full of kids, and who celebrated and danced and handed out cake on 9-11, and who are trying to build atom bombs so they can (in their own words) finish the holocaust that Hitler started are BAD… does that make the people who fight them GOOD?”

    Keep up that sort of thinking and the next thinking and all sorts of things result. Thought like “Maybe we really do need to be protected from these people” and “Maybe exposing our deepest intelligence sources and methods is not the best use of the NYT front page”, and “Maybe Bush and Rumsfled are not drooling evil warmongers.” This is plus-ungood thinking. Double-plus-ungood even. It will upset the readers and the subscribers!

    Before you know it, you might wind up having to print something bad about Nick Lamont!! (Thoughtcrime! Thoughtcrime! Thoughtcrime! )

    Besides, where is the upside? They don’t give out Pulitzers for doing exposes on other reporters!!

    So it is safer just not to go there…..

    So, anybody heard anything new about Mel Gibson or that Ramesy kid? Who is Jennifer Aniston sleeping with these days?

  • Wonders For Oyarsa

    By the way, the current version of Photoshop is CS2.

  • Chip


    The other part of the same story is censorship by both combatants. Several times in the last several weeks TV network reporters have noted that Hesbullah has not allowed them to film certain images katusha firings, dead bodies of fighters, fighters etc. The Israelies have a history of censoring reporters and their images. Yet I have seen no print or other media report on the effect of such censorship on the reports we have seen from either Lebanon or Israel during this conflict.

    Is MSM supposed to be the publishing house of both sides pr?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The Big Media has always had a hard time investigating and reporting on itself. The fact is most groups and institutions have a hard time ripping through itself. It is unfortunate and should be commented on in order to get any institution to do more self-analysis and self-criticism. And the medias distortions, fabrications, and sometimes lies can have wholesale devastating effects on communities or individuals.
    What is most infuriating, though, is that when Big Media finds other institutions behaving as they do the story becomes one of evil intent, conspiracy, cover-up, purposeful and willful ignorance or neglect–which may sometimes be so—BUT NEVER is a Big Media institution guilty of such and is never really put under the same type spotlight other institutions are by them, including businesses, labor unions, churches, etc.
    Reuters has gotten a “pass” but- from what I have read of the obviousness of the faked photos- some editors or executives up the “food chain” clearly had to be part of the problem. And considering a whole nation–Israel- has repeatedly been smeared across the world by the photo-lies– heads should roll. But noone seems really to care except a few like on “Get Religion.”

  • Stephen A.

    Since I wrote my comments, I saw a portion of Kurtz’ Reliable Sources program in which the LGF editor and Arianna Huffington discussed the issue of the faked photos.

    Nearly at the end of the segment, I was astonished that the twice-photographed woman wasn’t brought up by anyone, but at the last minute, Arriana (surprisingly) did bring it up as another instance of fakery. Good for her!

  • Charlie

    For heaven’s sake, people, use some common sense! If the photos of the woman were a scam, don’t you think she might have changed her dress?!

  • Stephen A.

    Charlie: And yet, no one noticed among the staffs of the numerous newspapers that used her image? Your words STILL indict them, for carelessness, even if that unlikely scenario is true.

    It took some curious bloggers to expose it. Why was that, I wonder? Willful neglect? or simply they didn’t notice this fact you mention as if it was obvious to everyone? Clearly it wasn’t obvious to those editors.

    Scam or not, it was an outright lie to use different dates on the same photo. Clearly, those who used the second version of the photo either made up the date, or assumed (bad word in the news business) that it was from THAT DAY’s news. Or they just thought no one would notice.

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