The Ethics of Photo Editing: What’s Right and Wrong In The News Media

Posted in Uncategorized on April 6, 2009 by Katie McKay

In the Beginning…

Posted in Introductions to the topic on April 6, 2009 by Katie McKay

Photojournalism ethics is a major concern in today’s media.

The “New” Media Debate:

When you are in media management, you hold to reigns not only to what information people get, but how they get it, in what order they see or hear it and sometimes how they feel about it. 

With issues like this to weigh along with countless others, including but not nearly limited to, upper –management pressure, ratings pressures, employee pressure, how is a manager to deal when it comes to performance. 

Managers are expected create and present top-notch broadcasts, newsprint, telecasts, and web posts among many other types of media.  It is not surprising that a growing number of what many call ‘violations of ethics’ in the editing process are cropping up across all mediums of media.

With increasing ease, editors, photographers, and just about any Joe-shmo can open up Photoshop and wreak havoc on the ethics of hardworking journalists.  Where in the distant past that honor was left up to the highly skilled, extremely patient hands of manipulative, trained photo developers. 

Well, some might ask, “What’s so wrong with wanting to print, show and publish the best looking photos we can.  It looks good and it wasn’t changed that much?” 

But changed still the same, even toning photos for some publications without disclosure can come with a very high price, the price of your job. 


What is right and what is wrong?

Doctoring photos has quite literally, whether the average person knows it or not, been around since the advent of the camera.  It becomes not a question of if a photo has been manipulated (because most of them will be in someway) but of how much and does it change the original image so that the photo is no longer portraying the ‘truth.’ 

It becomes an issue of

‘Ethics’ vs. ‘Aesthetics’, 

‘Art’ vs. ‘Journalism’. 

If something is “ethical” by definition it is “conforming to professional standards of conduct” those standards are the ethics themselves, or “a set of moral principles or values.”

According to Jerry Lodriguss, it is “a fundamental fact that we usually forget… that when we take a picture we do not make a perfectly objective recording of reality.  What we make is an interpretation of reality.  There is no film or digital camera that perfectly and accurately records nature even on this simple level.”

Often times, for the individual and the personal, or even, professional photographer ‘photoshopping’ is no big deal.  It is a little bit different for a media manager.  They have to walk that thin line of portraying the truth of the scene, what actually happened, what it physically looked like, so that those that are learning about it through that managers organization are getting the truth, as best they can present.



So, What’s The Status?

Posted in Current Status of the Issue on April 1, 2009 by Katie McKay


Kim Kardashian was featured on the cover of Complex Magazine. The original cover (left) was leaked. The photoshopped version (right) is on newstands now.

Kim Kardashian was featured on the cover of Complex Magazine. The original cover (left) was leaked. The photoshopped version (right) is on newsstands now.


With the invention of Photoshop and other photo editing programs, product validity has become an issue. Media managers struggle with this today due to its varying nature. The ability to take a newsworthy photograph no longer lies with professional photographers. The explosion of convergence media has made it possible for the “average Joe or Jane,” to take professional pictures; adapting each image to fit a particular communication style.

Adobe Photoshop, for example, has transformed photograph editing into an art. In the past, red eye reduction and photo retouching took hours. Thanks to the precision of programs like Photoshop and iPhoto, photographers can “fix” an image in a matter of seconds.

In the past, picture refinement, took several hours. Nowadays, all it takes is someone with a working knowledge of photo editing software. Online tutorials like,, offer up-to-date information on how to use many of the Adobe CS3/CS4 Suites for less than $100 or for free! And for those, with limited cash to spare, the general web offers quick, “how to…” guides on how to fix or retouch photographs.

Anyone can sign up for a YouTube and have an endless array of free phoroshop and photo editing tutorials and ‘how-to’ videos at his or her finger tips.

Over the years, public apathy towards photojournalism ethics along with ignorance about the extent of photo manipulation has made it difficult for those working in the the media to implement any true, ‘followable’ standard for photographers and graphic designers in the field.

While there are rules that clearly state what a photographer can and cannot do, many feel as if the “rules” no longer apply to them, especially with the circulation of magazines like People, Star and the National Inquirer.

Doctored photographs are published all the time in magazines like those listed above, with the intention to increase readership and overall sales. Even, reputable organizations like Coca-Cola and the American Heart Association alter photographs to garner support for a particular cause or event.

Photo cropping and image scaling have been used to create a depth perception that at times, forces people to believe in something that never took place. Many companies use these techniques to increase consumer response, event coverage or product sales.

While many of these techniques are used regularly, the question of how often and how much comes into play. Is it right for companies or organizations to show images that distort an event? Is it right for consumers to think that they are buying into something that has generated a lot of buzz, when in reality the buzz has been created for them? It is easy to say no, but when this particular formula has been used for years, and increased product sales all across the board, the question is not whether it is right, but what and where are the guidelines?



Is it safe to believe the photographs that we see everyday?

Among media managers in the communication industry today, photojournalism ethics is one of several issues that many entering the business will eventually address. “Most people haven’t noticed, but it’s getting more and more difficult to recognize reality in photographic journalism” ( Due to the complex nature of photo editing programs, it has become almost impossible to note the alternations found in most media. 

“While the unwary public soaks up newspaper and broadcast news reports which show stark photography, those of us who know what can be done with today’s software are taking a more careful look. A recent photo in the local newspaper editorialized the aftermath of a house fire. Most people looked at the story it told. [However,] I saw the affects of over-sharpening and was [amazed] that the image had been manipulated”


Newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today provide photographers with strict guidelines on how to shoot and edit their photographs. (EXAMPLE: The Charlotte Observer’s photo policy states, “No colors will be altered from the original scene photographed” (

Photojournalists are required to turn in all of their proofs as well as their final portfolio in order for their photographs to be used. Although magazines like Star and the National Inquirer, require less ethics from their photographers, the problem, or question, remains the same, is it safe to believe the pictures we see in the media today?

Only time will tell.

In the past, photograph distortion took several weeks. As time progressed, photograph distortion went from taking weeks, to a few hours, to now only a few minutes. Photoshop has made it easy to doctor a photo or graphic design, with very little help.

Simple color change or image scaling can alter the perception of those looking at the design or picture. “Any [technique] that can alter the original [image] or scene captured by the camera…” is considered unethical.

And while these “rules” may apply to those working in the media, they can and do apply to anyone taking pictures to be viewed by the public, hence the problem. The creation of multi-purpose cell phones, computers, and cameras have made it easy for just about anyone to become a journalist. Nowadays, media outlets rely on the public to help them capture the news. Therefore, it is important for media managers to know and understand the ethical issues behind photojournalism. Photographs are used to help deliver a story and add validity to an event, or breaking news story. Pictures or images that distort or alter the publics’ ability to achieve an accurate representation of a news story, or product, create problems that could result in a decline in sales, product recall and overall lack of trust among consumers.

While the idea is to increase sales and product revenue, it is important for photojournalists in all markets to report what they see as they see it.

Policies like those found at the New York Times, the Charlotte Observer and the Washington Post are used to enhance the validity of stories read or viewed in print and online.

“However, I can tell you why we have policies governing the alteration of photographs. Journalism cannot be about original works of art unless it is labeled as such. That is why we label photo and art illustrations. It’s why editorials go on pages labeled for opinion. Journalism, however, does often capture art in real life. Photojournalism is one means of doing that. Writing that’s grounded in factual reporting is another. Sometimes, our tools fail us. The camera settings don’t accommodate the circumstances. The notes aren’t legible in our notebooks. The tape-recorder fails. To the extent that we journalists are confident about what we saw or heard, we may rely on our memory to tone a photo to reflect the original scene photographed, or to reconstruct the quotes. Toning for accuracy is allowable under the language of our photo policy”


It is important for journalists and photojournalists to report what they see, the use of alteration tools like cropping, blemish reduction and color modification can change the ebb and flow of an article or graphic design. One should be able to see the original version and generate his/her own thoughts on the issue or event, not the other way around. Although story angles are used to sell a particular article or picture or graphic design, audience perceptions should be left to the audience. Spinning a story or changing a photograph to reflect or depict a certain feeling or emotion is unethical and should be left to the public. 





Photo Manipulation Throughout History: A Timeline

Posted in History of the issue on April 1, 2009 by Katie McKay

The history of doctoring photographs dates back to the 1860s, only a few decades after Niepce created the first photograph in 1814, photographs were already being manipulated. The nearly iconic portrait of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is a composite of Lincoln’s head and the Southern politician John Calhoun’s body.


Around the 1910s, photographic composites of different images were created by commercial photographic studios to bring family members together into one picture when they were not together in reality for the portrait session.


They were cut out of other photos and pasted on top of a photo of the woman at right and re-photographed in a composite image.

1937:  In this doctored photograph, Adolf Hitler had Joseph Goebbels (second from the right) removed from the original photograph. It remains unclear why exactly Goebbels fell out of favor with Hitler.


1942: In order to create a more heroic portrait of himself, Benito Mussolini had the horse handler removed from the original photograph.


1982:  In this National Geographic magazine cover story on Egypt, photographer Gordon Gahen took a horizontal picture of the Great Pyramids of Giza, which had to be “squeezed” together to fit the magazine’s vertical format. Tom Kennedy, who became the director of photography at National Geographic after the cover was manipulated, stated that, “We no longer use that technology to manipulate elements in a photo simply to achieve a more compelling graphic effect. We regarded that afterwards as a mistake, and we wouldn’t repeat that mistake today.”


1989:  The cover of TV Guide displayed this picture of daytime talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. This picture was created by splicing the head of Winfrey onto the body of actress Ann-Margret, taken from a 1979 publicity shot. The composite was created without permission of Winfrey or Ann-Margret, and was detected by Ann-Margret’s fashion designer, who recognized the dress.


1992:  This cover of Texas Monthly shows former Texas Governor Ann Richards astride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. This picture was created by splicing the head of Richards onto the body of a model. The editors explained that their credit page disclosed this fact by noting in the credits page “Cover Photograph by Jim Myers … Stock photograph (head shot) By Kevin Vandivier / Texastock.”


Entering the 1990s, with the advent of high-resolution digital cameras, powerful personal computers and sophisticated photo editing software, it is becoming more common to manipulate photographs. It is also harder to detect fake photos.

1994:  This digitally altered photograph of OJ Simpson appeared on the cover of Time magazine shortly after Simpson’s arrest for murder. This photograph was manipulated from the original mug shot that appeared, unaltered, on the cover of Newsweek. Time was subsequently accused of manipulating the photograph to make Simpson appear “darker” and “menacing.”


1997:  This digitally altered photograph of Kenny and Bobbi McCaughey appeared on the cover of Newsweek shortly after Bobbi gave birth to septuplets. This photograph was manipulated from the original that appeared, unaltered, on the cover of Time. Newsweek manipulated the photograph to make Bobbi’s teeth straighter, and were accused of trying to make her “more attractive.”


2000: Hoping to illustrate its diverse enrollment, the University of Wisconsin at Madison doctored a photograph on a brochure cover by digitally inserting a black student in a crowd of white football fans. The original photograph of white fans was taken in 1993. The additional black student, senior Diallo Shabazz, was taken in 1994. University officials said that they spent the summer looking for pictures that would show the school’s diversity — but had no luck.


2004:  This digital composite of Senator John Kerry and Jane Fonda sharing a stage at an anti-war rally emerged during the 2004 Presidential primaries as Senator Kerry was campaigning for the Democratic nomination. The picture of Senator Kerry was captured by photographer Ken Light as Kerry was preparing to give a speech at the Register for Peace Rally held in Mineola, New York, in June 1971. The picture of Jane Fonda was captured by Owen Franken as Fonda was speaking at a political rally in Miami Beach, Florida, in August 1972.


2006: A photograph of CBS news anchor Katie Couric was digitally altered from this original to give Couric a trimmer waistline and a thinner face. This photo appeared in CBS’ in-house magazine Watch! CBS spokesman, Gil Schwartz, said the doctored image was the work of a CBS photo department employee who got a little zealous.” Schwartz added, “I talked to my photo department; we had a discussion about it; I think photo understands this is not something we’d do in the future.”


2008: This photo of Governor Sarah Palin was widely distributed across the Internet shortly after Palin was announced as the vice presidential nominee for the Republican ticket. Shortly after its release the photo was revealed to be a composite of Palin’s head and somebody else’s body.


2009: This photo of Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan of “The Dark Knight” appeared in Vanity Fair as part of a series of photographs of acclaimed actors and directors. The photo of Ledger, who died in 2008, is from 2005 as he was promoting the film “Brokeback Mountain.” Nolan (shown on the left) was digitally inserted into this photo.



Photo Tampering Throughout History,

The Ethics of Digital Manipulation,

National Press Photographers Association, Ethics in the Age of Digital Photograph,


Issues?!? Ethics??!! OMG

Posted in Issues in Studying Photojournalism Ethics on April 1, 2009 by Katie McKay


These new issues bring up a very real challenge when discussing the ethics behind photo editing. 

  • Who’s in charge? 
  • Who manages the release of photos?
  • And what happens when no one is in charge? 
  • How do you police, prevent, or hold people account for doing this? And should we?
  • What about the internet?


These are issues that even ten years ago weren’t nearly as relevant as they are in today’s media market.  For many of these questions, there are not clear answers yet and hot debate and discussion is still on everyone’s tongues.  But what can be looked at are a few of the more clear and easily recognized factors at hand when discussing this issue.


In the past there were always different standard for those in the media and the average “non-media” individuals when it came to news in general and photography in particular.  If you were media personnel you had to be held to professional standards of what was right and wrong, ethical and unethical. 

In the early 19th century the press held a solid place in society as the “fourth estate”.  This creation allowed for and required they be held to professional sandards of ethical behavior. 

According to the Society of Professional Journalist in 1987, media’s responsibility was defined as, “the public’s right to know of events of public importance and interest is the overriding mission of the mass media.  The purpose of distributing news and enlightened opinion is to serve the general welfare.  Journalists who use their professional status as representatives of the public for selfish or other unworthy motives violate a high trust.” 

It is that high trust that is the question and issue now, who should be held this and exactly what are those standards now.  How much photo editing should be allowed, if any, and at what point does it become unethical?

So to this effect, the media have a very important role to play in society.  They should be and are held to higher standards of ethical behavior than the ‘common’ individual. 

But in today’s society just about anyone can lay claim to being “part of the media’.  And whether you agree or disagree, these “bloggers” and “online journalists” are increasingly being considered legitimate news organizations. 

Don’t believe it? Just last week President Obama held a press conference, which was called an online town hall meeting.  All the questions taken were from people online.  Anyone can blog online about anything they think is news, and someone else in the world can read it and think its news. Similarly, anyone can post a picture with that ‘news’ story and misrepresent what actualy happened throuhg photo manipulation.

Should that person be held to the same high standards as a professional member of the media?  (The ‘new’ age-old question and debate.) 

This is right at the heart of our issue. 

With the technology and ability to manipulate images and publish them over the internet or even to sell them to the newspapers, or even for professional members of the media to be able to manipulate photos without anyone possibility knowing or being able to find out.  What are managers, editors, and the general public to do? 

These different standard lines are being blurred.  It doesn’t help the situation when different media outlets are held to different standards even within the field.  Advertisers are held to a different standard then traditional news media outlets.  When you are trying to make a profit form your images and outputs, then you can allowed much more ‘wiggle-room’ with your images.  You can ‘photoshop’ much more and it be more acceptable in the eyes of the general public.  But this is creating a big mess in the news media forum. 

How much is ok?

And when does it become not ok?  

Here are some example of what has been done about this at different publications: 


2003: This digital composite of a British soldier in Basra, gesturing to Iraqi civilians urging them to seek cover, appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq. Brian Walski, a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times and a 30-year veteran of the news business, was fired after his editors discovered that he had combined two of his photographs to “improve” the composition.




2006: The Charlotte Observer fired photographer Patrick Schneider for altering this image of a fire fighter. Following the incident, the paper released the following statement: “Photographer Patrick Schneider’s photo depicted a Charlotte firefighter on a ladder, silhouetted by the light of the early morning sun. In the original photo, the sky in the photo was brownish-gray. Enhanced with photo-editing software, the sky became a deep red and the sun took on a more distinct halo. The Observer’s photo policy states: No colors will be altered from the original scene photographed.” Schneider said that he only meant to restore the actual color of the sky that was lost when he underexposed the photo. Schneider was suspended in an earlier episode after it was revealed that his award-winning photographs had been manipulated. Schneider allowed this case to be used to educate other professional photographers in ethics seminars. At the time he pledged, “I will no longer tone my background down that far.”





So where do we go from here?

 Traditionally, in a news media forum, selecting a photographer to either hire as a freelancer or someone who works for you starts with the assignment.  

Photo editors and managers have the tedious job of knowing who is going to be the best photographer for the jobs for the particular assignment they are handing out.  It is the job of the upper-level mangers to review portfolios weekly, even daily to make sure they are up to date onwhat kind of photography best for which assignments and which photographer would best fit that assignment.

This is one way in which a photo editor or a media manager can prevent or try to limit the possibility of running into a problem with photo manipulation ending up in their publication.  

To cut down on them having to continually be better than the photographers, which is probably an impossibility, they can become familiar with as many professional photographers as they can.  

Surprisingly enough, most of the photo editors of many publications are completely (or mostly) in the dark about photography (Kobre 129).  A timeless question which must be brought up as a factor involved in studying photo editing ethics is if photographers should even be allowed to edit their own work for a publication or not.  Some schools of thought believe that they (the photographers) are too close to their work, to “emotionally involved” to look at their work as work and thus would not be able to objectively edit their own work.  After all photography is still considered an art form and thus the photographer an artist selling his or her work.  So, if the photographer does tone and edit his or her own work, what can be done by media managers to keep ethics in the minds of these folks?


Along this same line of thinking…

A question in studying photo editing ethics is if photographers should even be allowed to edit their own work for a publication or not.  

Some believe that photographers are too “emotionally involved” to objectively edit their own work.  Photography is still considered an art form and thus the photographer an artist selling his or her work.  

So, if the photographer does tone and edit his or her own work, what can be done by media managers to keep ethics in the minds of these people?

Another solution is to make each media outlet create their own set of rules and standards (which could be based on a previously made sets like NPPA’s photojournalism standards) and make them available for people if they believe there is a problem.  

The members of the photo staff, as well as members of the management team, should be involved in this process so that everyone has a say and also so that everyone knows the ethical standards they are going to be held to.

A third possible solution would be to create a standard set of ethics for all media.  This option has many drawbacks, such as the specific publication or role of that particular media, but would allow less wiggle room with-in the industry about knowing what is right and wrong in the field of photo editing.   

Photojournalism ethics are constantly changing.  

These three options are all mere suggestions.  The real answer is not even yet on the horizon.  These are our best guesses at what a solution could possibily be.  

Where the photography world is going is a mystery, but where the field of photojournalism is too a mystery with more at stake. 

 The news people get relies on the journalists that provide it and that too is changing.  

So ultimately…

All we are left with is the same thing we started with…