Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Not again!

Morgantown newspaper removes three legislators from front-page photo

The above report from West Virgina Public Broadcasting is making the rounds. It's the latest, and one of the most embarrassing examples of utterly unethical photo manipulation in the news.

We're supposed to report the news, not make it. Right? And this is certainly making the news for all the wrong reasons.

I hope I was crystal clear in my previous post about the use of Adobe Photoshop in the newsroom.

The most disturbing aspect of this report is the reaction of The Dominion Post editor Geri Ferrara. She is surprised anyone would object to the manipulation. For some reason, she seems to think that designating the picture as a "photo illustration" in the caption is sufficient. Further, she believes the paper's policy of not publishing photos of politicians running for office trumps accuracy and honesty in her publication's visual reportage.

I'd like to further quote National Press Photography Association Ethics Chair John Long:

"If a picture looks real – in the context of news – it better be real. You cannot caption away a visual lie."
Visual illiteracy is the culprit, in this case. If photographs and other types of visual journalism were given the same respect as words, these kinds of transgressions wouldn't occur in the first place.

I feel the need to apologize for one of my so-called colleagues.

Folks, you should expect information reported in the news to be accurate. It's all about credibility. Without, I don't have a job. Do I?



  1. You know, Scott, if this were a small weekly or community paper, I might shrug this off to small-town politics or even ignorance. But when the editor of a 20,000 circ daily does this, and then in essence says, "What's the big deal?", that is just jaw-droppingly wrong. I can not even imagine ANY justification for this. I mean, this editor is basically thumbing her nose at one of the most staunch code of ethics in our business. I'd be interested to know how readers of The Dominion Post reacted to this revelation.

  2. Eddie, I don't think this editor is thumbing her nose at all. I think it's a matter of pure ignorance.

    An enlightened editor, or any journalist for that matter, will treat photographs just like any other news content. If photo reportage is held to the same ethical standards as text, these types of transgressions just wouldn't occur. When you treat photographs like window dressing for text instead of actual news content, you are bound for trouble.

    I wonder how this editor feels about the practice of changing quotes or any facts reported in a story. It's the same thing. A lie is a lie.

    The editor probably felt obligated to use a picture with this story – any picture. But that kind of thinking is misguided. If a photograph doesn't measure up to some kind of policy instituted by a particular publication, JUST DON'T USE IT AT ALL!!!

  3. One more thing. This kind of transgression happens, all too often, at every level. There are plenty of editors at major publications whose backgrounds are solely in writing or graphic design and have little regard for photographs.

    There are too many writers who simply think that photographs are inferior to words in their ability to communicate. Pictures are for morons who can't read. Simply a necessary evil.

    And there are too many graphic designers who treat photographs as play things – design elements, not news content.

    These people infiltrate every level of news publications. Unfortunately, photo staffs have been gutted at publications everywhere as cost-cutting measures. So who's left to make important editorial decisions about photographs?

    The digital era has been both a godsend and a curse to photojournalism, and the ethical ramifications are something we are going to have to grapple with for some time to come.

  4. I can tell you that the readers dont know. None of the local WV media has picked up on the story. And the paper has not addressed it. They dont see what they did wrong.

  5. Update:

    The National Press Photographers Association sent a scathing letter composed by Ethics Chair John Long to The Dominion Post editor Geri Ferrara.

    NPPA Objects To Dominion Post's Digital Alteration Of News Photograph

    According to Alison Knezevich of the Charleston Gazette and Kennie Bass at WCHS-TV, the The Dominion Post isn't very consistent about enforcing the policy they cited as justification for the doctored photo.

  6. More updates:

    Here is a message board dedicated to story ideas for the Daily Show with John Stewart. I included it because there is a long list of links to websites addressing this topic:

    West Virginia Newspaper Removes Democratic Bill Sponsors from Front Page Photo in Ethics Blunder

    Here is a PDF of the response by The Dominion Post editor Geri Ferrara in an editorial. This is the only way to view the response because The Dominion Post website is behind a total pay wall. You must subscribe to view any of their content beyond headlines:

    Photo Decisions Not Taken Lightly

    Has Ferrara learned her lesson? I hope so. She seems to regret the decision to alter the photo. It's interesting that she closes by maintaining a commitment to credibility.

    Despite reaching the highest editorial post at her publication, this appears to be Ferrara's first lesson in visual literacy. It's a shame it had to be such a painful lesson for both her and The Dominion Post readers. We learn from our mistakes, hopefully.


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