Fake Photos Are as Bad as Phony Stories

Faking a news photo is grounds for dismissal. Faking a combat photo should be a career-ending offense. I'm not talking about image manipulation that clearly is labeled as an illustration or croppin

Sep 6, 2006 at 2:06 pm

Faking a news photo is grounds for dismissal. Faking a combat photo should be a career-ending offense.

I'm not talking about image manipulation that clearly is labeled as an illustration or cropping a picture to make the final, still-accurate image more dramatic. Joe Rosenthal's iconic AP photo from Iwo Jima was cropped wisely to emphasize the men raising the large flag rather than the wider image atop Mount Suribachi.

However, changing colors or offering blended digital images as an original photo is corrupt. Remember the Time cover of the very dark accused O.J. Simpson while Newsweek published the photo with accurate skin tones?

More recently, the Charlotte Observer fired a staff photographer who manipulated too many local news photos beyond company policy: "No colors will be altered from the original scene photographed."

Early in the Iraq war, The Los Angeles Times fired a staff photographer after a reader noticed the same person twice in a staff photographer's Page 1 picture of a British trooper guarding Iraqi civilians.

This summer Reuters dumped a veteran Lebanese freelancer and hundreds of his file photos after it confirmed a reader's charge that a bombing photo was doctored in ways that exaggerated the Israeli attack.

Contrast that with the photographer who ran ahead under fire to catch the faces of American soldiers running toward him on a bridge into Baghdad or the photographer who caught a Marine cradling a dying buddy in Vietnamese mud.

Fakery began in the mid-19th century: rearranged bodies in Civil War photos, floating "ectoplasm" at séances and, later, murdered Communists vanishing from Soviet photos.

Today too many photographers are doctoring images and lying in captions from Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. Some fakery goes beyond creating a stronger picture; it evokes sympathy for one side and hatred for another. Today no one says, "Pictures don't lie."

The problem doesn't end by blaming Photoshop's seductive cloning tool. Fakery dishonors combat photographers who don't cheat and those who are killed or wounded getting the real thing.

Doctoring news photos denies us knowledge of what happened and dishonestly manipulates our reactions. Think of your response to images of charred contractors hanging from an Iraqi bridge, dead Americans dragged through Mogadishu by jubilant Somalis or the starving Sudanese child being watched by a nearby vulture.

The good news is that some cheats are getting caught. Readers and the Internet are central to this. So are photo editors who grew up shooting film but are learning to look for digital fakery. Hindering them, however, is the dearth of military or combat experience that might alert them to doctored images.

I knew combat photographers overseas in the '60s and '70s. They worked in Algeria, the Middle East, the Congo. Some were war lovers. Others did it because war/terror paid best. Such fame and fortune as these images provide is a powerful lure. It drew me to Central Africa and the Congo as a photojournalist and made me consider, however briefly, an invitation years later to apply for a job in Jerusalem.

By then, however, I knew that I didn't have what the true combat photographer has: an acceptance of repeated and potentially lethal risks to get photos that capture a moment and affect anyone who sees it.

Curmudgeon Notes
· Cincinnati Enquirer insiders say they have a new list of topics and communities on which editors and reporters are to concentrate. John Fox, my publisher, and I live in a neighborhood that doesn't pass The Enquirer's smell test. We aren't Hyde Park, Anderson Township or Mason. Courting affluent readers might be a good short-term business plan, but will such a paper be worth buying?

On the other hand, the new Enquirer GetLocal Web site allows people to post news and photos on 200-plus community "pages" without the restriction of newspaper space. It's a great idea with potential for delivering new audiences to advertisers. However, Editor Tom Callinan promises that "much of it" also will be printed. It already is.

That's the problem. Too much talent and space are devoted to boosterism and trivia when it could be producing news that again has people saying, "I read it in The Enquirer."

· Is growing reliance on the label "Freedom Center" a way of saying the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is looking for a raison d'être?

· Must reporters identify confluences of interest among their subjects during the political season? When a township official favors a project being advanced by a political candidate with/for whom they work, is that relationship a vital part of the story? Is it enough to describe a network guest or panelist's expertise, or must audiences be told that the person holds a high-level government patronage job?

· John Mark Karr might be a sicko who wants publicity, but it was August, and his arrest in the killing of JonBenet Ramsey was a godsend to bored editors who never tire of stories with photos/tapes of missing or murdered pretty young — or very young — blondes.

· Read The Economist's Aug. 19 story on why murder rates soar in mid-size U.S. cities like Cincinnati.

· Bias in the news. An Aug. 30 New York Times story refers to South Africa's "tawdry" history of providing soldiers for hire. History, yes; but who says that decades as an ideal place for recruiting mercenaries is tawdry? No one but the reporter in this story.

· No entry in the Little Gem News Service contest passed our scatological screening. Readers were asked to write a phony and, we hoped, funny story keying off the CiN Weekly headline, "Smelling like a butt is never a good thing." Let's run with it for another month.