The little lies that photos can tell

For all the fuss over presidential re-dos and digital fakery, Anne McNeilly writes that the tougher questions around truth in photojournalism are sometimes also the subtlest.  For all the fuss over presidential re-dos and digital fakery, Anne McNeilly writes that the tougher questions around truth in photojournalism are sometimes also the subtlest. When U.S. President…

For all the fuss over presidential re-dos and digital fakery, Anne McNeilly writes that the tougher questions around truth in photojournalism are sometimes also the subtlest. 

For all the fuss over presidential re-dos and digital fakery, Anne McNeilly writes that the tougher questions around truth in photojournalism are sometimes also the subtlest.

When U.S. President Barack Obama restaged the announcement last week that Osama bin Laden had been killed by American soldiers for still photographers, he was censured for “pretending” to hold a news conference. This second presser, held so that the sound of clicking cameras  wouldn’t get in the way or impinge upon the live TV broadcast, was criticized as “fake.”

Was the criticism misguided? The restaging actually happened. It was “true,” with the same information and visuals, right up to the President entering the room, and it provided the same info as the main TV network reporter(s) received. The practical reasons for the restaging would seem to make the criticism, especially the word “fake,” unduly harsh. How is it that much different from the CBC running the same Peter Mansbridge newscast every night at 9, 10 and 11 p.m.? At least, Obama, unlike Mansbridge,  was “live” for the second go-round.  

What warrants more criticism is when news pictures or film are tampered with to change meaning or improve aesthetic quality so that they are no longer “true.”    

For example, Globe and Mail editors might not have noticed they ran a large digitally-altered version of the now-famous picture of Mary Vecchio kneeling over a dead Kent State university student for its page two moment-in-time series just after the “fake” presser.  No one complained, however, that the 1970 Kent State photo, as it appeared in the paper, was a “lie.” In the original photo, the fence post that, unfortunately, was situated behind the kneeling woman, appears to be growing out of her head. In the digitally-altered version readers saw last week, the fence post had been wiped out.  In the “true” photo, which won the Pulitzer, the fence post was there. In those days, news trumped aesthetics.

Readers also may not have noticed the alteration, but that doesn’t remove the ethical problem. They certainly did notice back in the eighties when The Globe and Mail ran a picture on front page of then-Liberal leader John Turner, running against Conservative Brian Mulroney for prime minister, with what appeared to be horns on his head due to the way shadows fell on the wall behind him. The photo appeared to be “true,” but obviously was not, and readers, especially Turner supporters, were furious at the way the picture distorted reality.  At the time, that photo caused a lively public debate. Was it fair, or just a cheap shot? 

DionNational Post editors decided not to run a comparable picture a few years ago when then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, who was also running for prime minister, was caught with what appeared to be a huge turkey on his head thanks to a Thanksgiving poster on the wall behind him. Sure, it was funny, but the picture wasn’t “true,” and didn’t run. Post editors decided the pic presented such a distorted view of the candidate that it was unacceptable.

PalinlegsThey didn’t, however, have any such ethical reservations when they ran a picture of U.S. Republican Sarah Palin’s legs onstage, while a man in the audience appeared to be looking up her skirt. The picture was a lie – and it wasn’t even digitally altered. But since few seemed to take Palin’s political aspirations seriously, it was feminists who (rightly) complained most about this photo.

StanfieldBut perhaps political figures are fair game when it comes to photographical appearance and reality. Who can forget the picture of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s head superimposed on an enormous fat body covered only with a fig leaf that ran front and centre in the alternative weekly NOW Magazine.  And how about the now-famous shot of former 60-year-old Conservative leader Robert Stanfield awkwardly fumbling a football toss when he was running against Liberal Pierre Trudeau for prime minister.  Many believe that the widely published (and award-winning) picture cost him the election. He was dubbed the “greatest prime minister Canada never had.”  The Stanfield photo may have been a “true” shot, but the message it conveyed was, arguably, a “lie.” It certainly distorted reality.

McCainSimilarly, the photo of  U.S. Republican John McCain who made an involuntary, and comic, grimace while stumbling off the stage following his debate with Obama is now famous. A photographer’s camera was able to capture the unflattering picture, which was over so fast that TV viewers missed it. It was the camera that caught that split-second grimace. The Toronto Star ran the picture over six columns. Hmmmm. Wonder who the paper thought was a better candidate?

Editorially, the message seems to be that while it it’s wrong to digitally produce “untrue” pictures, it’s okay to publish visually accurate pictures that convey questionable editorial comment.

Toronto Star editors were, reportedly, dismayed when the paper’s designers altered a picture of the winning horse in the Kentucky derby a couple of years ago and placed it on the front page. The head of the horse extended out of the frame into the neighbouring picture. Star designers also digitally imposed a large mug shot of a woman’s face onto a group of Canadian-Tamils who had gathered on the Gardiner expressway in summer 2009, which also caused consternation in the newsroom.  

More serious photographic manipulations have included a photo-shopped 2008 picture of Iranian missiles with a 2,000-mile range, which would enable a strike against Israel. The photo, which , ran in Canadian newspapers, had been doctored to disguise the malfunction of one of the rockets. As soon as the digital doctoring was discovered, papers ran corrections and some ran stories about how editors had been temporarily duped. Similarly, the 2007 picture of Soviet subs staking out a claim on the Arctic ocean floor, at least according to the Kremlin — comically turned out to be footage from the Award-winning movie, The Titanic. The photo, which ran internationally, was spotted by an alert Finnish teenager who loves movies.

OJSimpsonTimes magazine has still not lived down the O.J. Simpson mug shot on its cover that was altered  to make the accused murderer’s face appear darker.  In addition to demonstrating shocking racial insensitivity, the manipulation indicated the editors had already decided his guilt. And National Geographic is still famous for the visual “lie” on a 1982 cover that squeezed a horizontal view of the pyramids to accommodate its vertical cover. 

Veteran photographer Brian Walski was fired from the L.A. Times in 2003 after he digitally combined two “true” pictures together of a man carrying a baby  to create a more-dramatic third, which could have been “true” had the photographer been in the right position to capture it. The picture as it appeared, however, was a lie. 

Walski1Walski2“I wasn’t debating the ethics of it when I was doing it,” Walski said later. “I was looking for a better image. It was a 14-hour day and I was tired.” His editor, Colin Crawford, said he didn’t want to let the award-winning Walski go, but the “integrity of our organization is essential.”

The discussion of such large and seemingly small examples of photographical misdemeanors  goes to the credibility of news organizations — and credibility is primarily what journalists and news publications are selling. And with new and sophisticated technical tools that make it so easy to alter photos, a publication’s reputation for credibility has never been so valuable. 

Restaging a news announcement so journalists on all platforms have equal access to newsworthy  information seems minor in comparison.

Anne McNeilly, who teaches in Ryerson University’s School of Journalism,  is a fan of  the late Ansel Adams who once said that “a photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.”