Altered News – When Is Photo Manipulation Considered Acceptable?

the way forward?
is this the way forward? this photo has not been retouched.

Over the last several months I’ve been reading a lot of books about professional journalism, and the many-pronged battle that journalists and media outlets are fighting in the current media climate. Primarily due to several instances of fabricated news, the public’s trust of journalists, while rebounding slightly from early this decade, is still extremely low (only 49% of Canadians say they trust journalists, according to a 2006 Leger Marketing poll).

Also, citizen-generated media is evolving from random smatterings of photos and videos into a sophisticated journalism vehicle in its own right, competing for the public’s attention and destabilizing the foundation of traditional journalism which is largely still based on an “us-to-you” model, despite journos themselves calling for and seeking out updated models.

From all I’ve read, journalists and media outlets that have analyzed the current media landscape maintain they still represent a viable information source, in congress with citizen media, with journos finding stability primarily because of their professional training, adherence to ethics, and transparency in delivering the news.

Given this, I am struck by an interesting “convergence” of issues through the New York Times LENS Blog coming to light this week.

While the NYTimes Magazine is under fire for (unwittingly) carrying a photo essay that has been proven to be digitally manipulated – counter to their own, expressed, statement of journalist ethics – the newspaper’s LENS blog is carrying a rich slideshow of citizen-generated cellphone photos, with accompanying text about how the cameras on cellies alter the image with artful effect. Some of these photos were reworked using applications that mimic older cameras (such as Holgas, Poloroids and Leicas), and post-production photo software is almost a given in the digital realm now.

The differences between the two is subtle: the NYT Magazine piece is considered photojournalism and therefore meant to be above the slings and arrows of digital trickery, whereas the citizen-generated photos on the LENS Blog are (I guess) best considered Citizen Photojournalism and therefore held to a much lower standard.

As recent events have shown, however, Citizen Journalism is often more newsworthy than traditional media because of its immediacy, ubiquitousness, and ability to get stories from shadowy areas that journalists (despite best efforts) are not allowed access to.

On the whole, though, I have a great deal of respect for the New York Times in carrying both of these pieces on the LENS Blog, and see their actions as a great example of where traditional media can stake a claim as media models evolve.

Ironically, by highlighting the controversy facing the photo essay in their print magazine, and updating the public on their own and the photographer’s reaction to the public outcry about the manipulated photos, the NY TImes are displaying the transparency and ethics they must rely on to maintain public trust (ie: admitting to mistakes, however inadvertent they may have been, despite how this may further erode credibility).

To do so while also carrying the photo essay of citizen-generated cellphone photos on the LENS Blog, the Times are showing an openness to public reportage and highlighting their search for a hybridized style of news gathering – one that grows in the grassroots, finds wider broadcast upon the pillars of the Fourth Estate, and seeks that discussion with the public about what is manifest and what is latent is the shadows between the two.

In my opinion, by being transparent in admitting the errors of their traditional, print magazine, while also carrying a vast array of public reportage, the Times do not undermine their journalistic credibility, but rather strengthen their relevance as a media source as we all try to find our footing in the shifting media landscape. It is really the only way forward.

And perhaps this is merely another step toward bringing public trust back to journalists – at least edging closer to 50% of the public trusting journalists again.

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