Where do we re-draw the line?
The shifting ethics of digital manipulation
You won’t find the June 27,1994 U.S. edition ofTime in any library. Nor can you order a back copy – all of them have been sold. The issue has become a collector’s item because of an error in judgment.
On its cover, a colour police mug shot of ex-football hero O.J Simpson was darkened using a technology called digital imaging. The art director and managing editor would have preferred to run a piece of art, but they didn’t have time to commission a painting. The O.J. story broke on a Friday, Time got the mug shot on Saturday, and its deadline was Sunday. “So they went to one of their guys who does Photoshop work,” explains senior editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt. “When [the digital manipulation] came in, they didn’t like how dark it was and actually tried to lighten it. When it came back lightened, they said, ‘Well, that’s better than what we saw before.”‘
But it wasn’t good enough. The artistic treatment of the photo brought on charges of racism and called into question the use of digital imaging by the media. Dorothy Butler Gilliam, president of the U.S. National Association of Black Journalists, stated a week later in Maclean’s magazine, “The cover appeared to be a conscious effort to make Simpson look evil and macabre, to sway the opinion of the reader to becoming fixated on his guilt.” Elmer-DeWitt says hundreds of negative messages were posted on the computer network America Online, after a Time staffer raised the question, “What did you think of [the cover]?”
James Colton, director of photography at Newsweek , thought the decision to manipulate the O.J. mug shot was a bad one. That same week, Newsweek had run the identical mug shot on its cover. The difference was, it hadn’t been manipulated. “Since they were side by side on the newsstands, it caused a lot more second glances,” he says. “People began asking, ‘This is the same picture, how could that be?”‘
A picture was once considered a snapshot of time. Viewers believed what they were seeing was an accurate representation of an event that occurred at a certain moment in history. Though often skeptical of the truth in print, the public had no reason to question photographs. The fact is, newspapers and magazines have always changed pictures. Events can be staged and photographs retouched or cropped so that they bear little resemblance to the original. Even the choice of lens, lighting or angle at which the photographer stands can alter the final result.
But with digital imaging, pictures can be shaded, rotated or melded with synthetic images, colours can be added or subtracted, and people moved or removed, all with a relatively inexpensive desktop publishing system. Most important, the mariipulation of images is undetectable to all but the highly trained eye, and it takes a fraction of the time and effort that traditional darkroom techniques require. The capacity to manipulate mav have always existed, but never with such range, speed, accessibility and ease.
Manipulation can be done so well, says Adrian Oosterman, a photographer at Electronic Photo Studio (EPS) in Toronto, “I could take a picture of you, change the colour of your eyes, the shape of your face, and only someone who knew you would know it was a manipulation.” So the issue becomes one of believability. When is it acceptable to digitally manipulate an image and when does it constitute an abuse of readers’ trust? Ross Mutton, the director of instructional media services at Carleton University in Ottawa, says it is the responsibility of journalists not only to accurately report the comments and ideas of those people being interviewed, but to ensure “that images are not altered digitally, resulting in a meaning or impression that is not based on reality.”
But the media cannot always predict what impression readers will form. Time thought it was creating an impression of reality – the tragedy of an American hero – but it was interpreted as a slur. Managing editor Jim Gaines had to admit in the following issue of Time (see sidebar, page 56) that “…altering news pictures is a risky practice, since only documentary authority makes photography of any value in the practice of journalism.”
There are a number of photographic and media organizations in the U.S. that could have advised Gaines of this. The New York-based American Society of Media Photographers maintains that any photograph used in a news context cannot be altered in any way. The National Press Photographers Association says, “As journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public.” And the Associated Press (AP) has a firm code of ethics that states, “The content of a photograph will never be changed or manipulated in any way.”
Canada lags behind its American counterparts in officially recognizing the dangers of digital manipulation. While the Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators in Communications (CAPIC) is considering regulations on the use of the technology, nothing has been officially hammered out. But CAPIC national president Brian Greer recognizes that, on occasion, the ethics of digital manipulation have fallen prey to enthusiasm for its possibilities, a situation he compares to advances in scientific technology. “We’re probably going to have a pretty good idea of how to make somebody with four arms who’s four-foot-three before we spend a lot of time thinking about whether we should or not,” he says. “And that’s kind of what’s happened with visual technology. It’s become ‘boy, look what we can do’ [as opposed to ‘should we?’].”
So far, nothing remotely close to the O.J. manipulation has occurred in the Canadian media – and if they’re to be believed, it won’t. Maclean’s photo editor Peter Bregg says that, to some degree, the industry polices itself. “I know if I did something, if I covered an event and it looked very different in the magazine from what the other photographers saw, they’d be on the phone and they’d be writing editorials.”
But a photographer isn’t always in the company of witnesses, which is why editors must be on the alert for digital abuse. Tim Clark, special projects editor of pictures at The Canadian Press (CP), says, “The only manipulation we allow here is the removal of hairs that might be on a negative, a scratch, a piece of dust or imperfections on a negative surface. We don’t allow people to manipulate any part of the image, to move anything or remove anything from the image.”
Despite the fact CP receives 400 to 500 photos a day, Clark is not the least bit concerned that a digitally manipulated one might slip through the cracks. Every photo is thoroughly examined, and if someone sees something questionable, it gets stopped immediately. From there, it can be looked at pixel by pixel – which are the basic elements (or dots) that compose a digitally stored image. By zooming in closer and closer, experts can see if images have been broken up by the movement or elimination of parts of the photograph.
Clark says in the last year, he can’t recall a single picture that was stopped because it had been manipulated. “Unless it’s a picture that’s been worked on for days, nobody has time to modify a news picture,” he explains. “I think any news service in the world that’s competitive has not got the time, nor the manpower, nor the inclination to manipulate a picture.”
But it happens. Several years ago, Clark says CP was fooled when it unknowingly released a manipulated picture over the wire. A newspaper in Philadelphia had photographed a Nobel Prize winner sitting at his desk, with a can of Diet Coke in front of him. Before publishing the photo, the newspaper removed the pop can, Clark says, “because the art director thought it cluttered the picture.”
AP picked up the picture electronically and transmitted it around the world. And it got past the strict and watchful eye of CP. The manipulation didn’t hurt the scientist’s reputation, but it changed reality. Nobody noticed.
As long as somebody with the scruples of Clark is in charge, such deception is unlikely to reoccur. For him, the ethical line is simple: “You owe a responsibility to the person looking at the picture to show them the reality of the situation. Your primary task [as a news photo service] is to send out a picture that is easy for a newspaper to reproduce and easy for the viewer to understand.”
When he finds himself going too far in retouching a photo, he knows it’s time to back off and say,I can’t do this.” He’ll ditch the picture or run it unaltered.
But as we’ve witnessed with a large, supposedly responsible news organization like Time, adhering to that philosophy isn’t always so easy. Especially for media managers who see digital manipulation as a creative tool, one with which they can editorialize. Once we go into the realm of commentary and the definition of consent, the ethical issues begin to blur. As well, the rights of both the manipulator and the manipulated raise some interesting legal questions.
Alan Shanoff, a Toronto media lawyer whose clients include The Toronto Sunand The Financial Post, says if a publication manipulates a photo without the subject’s consent, and the subject sues for defamation, the publication will need to prove that the manipulated photograph is an expression of opinion. “If so,” Shanoff asks, “was it based upon something of public interest or concern, was it made in good faith that it was without malice, and are there some underlying facts that could support it?”
In the case of the O.J. cover, Toronto arts and media lawyer Aaron Milrad says, “You can get away with [this] in the U.S. because he’s a public figure, unless it’s done deliberately with malice.” But in Canada, he adds, if you take someone and show them looking sinister, it may be a libel – even if they are a public figure.
In a much less dramatic way, Saturday Night magazine created a visual commentary when it manipulated photographs at the expense of three subjects in its March 1992 issue. To illustrate an article on the political speech writers for Brian Mulroney, Audrey McLaughlin and Jean Chrétien, the magazine photographed each writer, then without their knowledge, digitally placed puppets of the respective politicians on their laps. The writers were portrayed as ventriloquists and their bosses as simply mouthpieces.
It caused a minor stir at the time because at least one of the speech writers objected to the manipulation. “I spent 45 minutes with your photographer,” Walter Kinsella wrote in the June issue. “At no time did he tell me that he intended to alter the resulting photograph to include a very unflattering caricature of my boss, Jean Chr?tien, squatting on my knee. You may call that artistic licence. I call it unethical photojournalism.”
But art director Carmen Dunjko thinks it was an example of fair comment. “In this situation, the joke is in fact on the bosses, the people they are working for,” she says. “Politically, one would want to object to that’ ” But from a personal point of view, she thinks “no one was left without a laugh.”
In a legal context, the photographs are an expression of opinion, so long as the speech writers don’t look foolish. However, no one asked the subjects for their opinion or their permission, and Doug Bennet, editor of the industry magazine Masthead, has a problem with that. “I think if you are arranging a photo shoot with someone and you know you’re going to use this photo in some way where it’s going to be digitally manipulated, and the subject doesn’t know it, that would cross the line for me.” In the case of Saturday Night, he thinks “the subjects were misled.”
Neither Bennet nor Dunjko thinks that readers were misled because the final image was so obviously a piece of art. The public is much more visually literate than it has ever been, says Dunjko. As a result, she thinks there is no reason to fear the technology – readers should be able to spot an altered photo.
This is certainly true of gross manipulations such as the October 1994 cover of The Financial Post Magazine. U.S. Senator Max Baucus is pictured standing in a wheat field, an American flag draped over one shoulder, a gun in the opposite hand, and a head swelled out of proportion. In this case, the digital manipulation is no different than illustrative caricature, and cannot be mistaken as anything else. Art director David Woodside says, “I would not do this without making sure you could understand [a photo] was obviously manipulated or a joke.”
The joke is over when the manipulation is too subtle to be recognized as artistic fabrication. Although darkened and shadowy, the O.J. image still looked like O.J. The average reader had to turn to the table of contents to discover – by the editors’ admission – it was the work of photo maripulation.
It wasn’t the first time the magazine had used (or misused) the technology. Senior editor Elmer-DeWitt says Time’s policy is always to inform readers of any photographic manipulation. That’s also the policy at The Toronto Sun. It manipulates photos for “lifestyle, illustrative stuff,” says director of photography Hugh Wesley. “But when we do, we always mark on it ‘photographic manipulation,’ or ‘photo art’ or ‘photo assemblage.’We make sure people know we’ve done it.” But by the time readers see the photo credit, an impression has been made. Does it really matter that for a few moments; they think former Toronto mayor June Rowlands and ex-police chief Bill McCormack are embracing on the cover of eye weekly? Or that Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan appear to be skating close together on the front page of New York Newsday? Yes, if with each instance of”harmless” deception, readers’ trust erodes a little more.
CP’s Clark does not have a lot of respect for the art directors who create such scenes, calling them “the chief protagonists” of manipulation. “The art director is the guy who really doesn’t have a lot to do with photos,” he says, “but when it comes time to designing that Sunday page or special lifestyle section – when he has four, five, six days to work on it – he or she will most likely want to do some kind of manipulation. I like good newspaper design, but people who want to do that sort of thing to achieve better design are cheating the reader.”
Still, acknowledging the manipulation is better than concealing it, which is why CAPIC’s digital technology committee is “looking at the possibility that photographs should be identified as manipulated images,” says Brian Greer. “Part of the reason for that would be so photography can retain a sense of reality or truth.” If the committee can reach agreement, he adds, its policy decisions would probably be recommended to the Canadian government. “Our first step, of course, would be to encourage its use in the media.”
In the U.S., where potential abuse of digital manipulation by the media is taken very seriously, identification is of utmost importance. At New York University, the Committee for New Standards for Photographic Reproduction in the Media has drawn up a proposal that an icon be placed outside the bottom perimeter of any image published in the media “where significant manipulations have occurred ‘ ” The symbol, a square with a circle inside and a diagonal slash across it, would stand for “not a lens,” alerting readers that they are not seeing exactly what is in front of the camera. The proposal states, “The use of the icon would be required when any alteration of the photograph occurs that goes beyond accepted conventional darkroom techniques.”
But part of the problem Canada’s CAPIC has in making guidelines “is that you can’t make them on things that are so flexible, so diverse,” says Toronto chapter member Adrian Oosterman. “In a way, it’s like telling a painter he can only use three colours, and not mix any of them.” He sees no reason why photos should be labeled as being manipulated “unless we’re talking about a news item. In that case, I think you have to stay away front any kind of skewing of the picture because that’s an integrity issue.”
Only once has the Sun altered a news photo, says Hugh Wesley – and he considered it a mistake. In a shot of a float in the local Santa Claus parade last November, a hydro pole in the background looked as if it was going through someone’s mouth. So a photo editor took the pole out. It was harmless manipulation, but on learning of it, Wesley expressed his “distress.” Everybody, he says, including the editor who did it, realized they would never do it again.
But Frank O’Connor, president of the Eastern Canadian News Photographers Association, likens the use of digital manipulation to a schoolyard fight. “The first one is devastating, but they get easier to get involved in after that,” he says. “If we allow it to happen and don’t challenge it, then yes, it can be a real problem.”
O’Connor thinks education should be the primary focus. “We’re very visually sophisticated now and along with that sophistication comes a dark side,” he explains. “I think it has to start early on at colleges and universities – and have it instilled in people coming into the work force – that manipulation won’t be tolerated.”
Perhaps because the Sun’s Wesley is confident ofhis own ethical standards and that of his staff, he maintains that fears of digital abuse by the media have been blown way out of proportion. “There’s a hot debate in the States about this and they’re all worried about it,” he says. “It’s one of their pet things and they harp and harp. But really, I think it’s a dead duck issue now.”
One of the “harping” Americans thinks this sort of attitude is naive. Newsweek’s James Colton provides a hypothetical example of a manipulation that might upset Canadians. He suggests that Wayne Gretzky placed in a compromising position in a photograph and slapped on the front page of a newspaper would likely cause a major outcry. “Forgive me for picking out a hockey subject,” Colton says, “but if you get something that is of interest to a particular audience that causes some eyebrows to be raised, yes, I think it will in fact hit home as much as [the Time cover] did here in the States ‘ “
The question is whether a newsmagazine in Canada would take the liberties that Time did, and alter the content and integrity of a news photograph. “I can’t say yes or no,” says Maclean’s Peter Bregg. “It hasn’t happened. We haven’t needed to.” When “need” drives a publication to use digital manipulation, then we have cause for concern.