A picture is worth a thousand words, but what happens when photos lie?
According to Geneva Overholser, director of journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication:
“Photography is one of the most important parts of journalism because it reaches people so powerfully. It’s quicker, it’s more visceral than text. A photo is immediate.”
Because the visual elements are such an integral part of journalism, photojournalism is no exception to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics:
“Journalists should: never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.”
According to an article from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen website, there are three major ethical concerns for photojournalists, which raise multiple questions:
- Manipulation of digital images: What basic lines must not be crossed when it comes to digitally altering a photo for a news story?
- Intrusion into policy: Is it okay to capture a private moment? Should photos be taken of those in great tragedy?
- Graphic or shocking images: When is a photo too graphic? What criteria should be used to determine the newsworthiness of a photo?
The article stated that the first concern is especially heightened with the advancement of Adobe Photoshop, an image editing software. Both SPJ’s Ethical Code and Reuter’s Handbook of Journalism said that basic changes, like sharpening an image or slight color correction are acceptable.
However, sometimes photojournalists do not follow the ethical guidelines specific to their field.
Staff photographer for the LA Times, Brian Walski, was fired in April 2003 for altering an image, said Kenneth Irby of Poynter Institute. Walski manipulated two photos, taken moments apart, and combined them into one. The image ran on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and the Hartford Courant. However, Irby said it did not take long for editors to find the manipulation. Walski was very soon fired and said he regretted his actions.
In this video, award-winning photographers discuss what makes ethical photojournalism so powerful: