Photojournalist Ethics in a Photoshop World

Posted by Jeff Werth

Copyright 2012 The Sacramento Bee

The competition to claim the perfect shot clouds the ethics of some photojournalists.

In February 2012, the Sacramento Bee fired longtime photojournalist Bryan Patrick for violating the paper’s ethics policy forbidding the manipulation of documentary photographs. He created this composite  – the bottom image marked manipulated photograph – of a snowy egret stealing a frog from a great egret from the two images about it. After an investigation of his work, the paper found he had manipulated at least two other photographs, which calls in question his entire career as a photojournalist.

Why would a photojournalist risk everything for such a trivial photograph?

As both artists and journalists, photojournalists balance the conflicting desires of achieving the best image possible and documenting the authentic situation. With photo manipulation software like Photoshop, photojournalists gain power over any aspect of their photographs. They achieve the ability to create the perfect shot, but it comes at a cost.

When the temptation of the artist wins over judgment of the journalist, a photograph’s and a photojournalist’s integrity ceases to exist.  10,000 Words features a list of 10 news photos that took photo retouching too far.

The National Press Photographers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists maintain strict ethical standards for news images.  Using these standards as a reference, I generated a set of guidelines for photojournalists.

Photo Editing Guidelines for Photojournalists

  1. Maintain the content of the image. Each picture contains a moment in time that can’t be shared.  Find the best shot and live with it.  Leave the imperfections since reality isn’t perfect either.
  2. Affect the entire image. Photojournalists can adjust factors that affect entire image such as contrast, cropping, and sharpening. If you can do it in the field with the camera, then it can do it in Photoshop. Don’t overly affect the context of the image.
  3. Label photo illustrations or montages. If a picture has been altered beyond these two guidelines, label it as such.  This maintains the photograph’s integrity because it acknowledges the image was created, not shot.

Photojournalists tell stories with their cameras and are bound by the same ethics as other journalists. Even though Photoshop allows photojournalists to make the perfect shot, they must fight the temptation to set aside their ethics.

Does photo retouching make you question the authenticity of photographs?  How important is knowing that a photograph is a photograph, not a created image?

Photo Credit:  Copyright 2012 The Sacramento Bee

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4 responses to “Photojournalist Ethics in a Photoshop World

  1. Retouching leads me to question authenticity of photos, especially when I pick up a magazine. Too often, we hear about magazines retouching models to meet physical standards. Seventeen’s cover image, for instance, always features women with flawless complexions, flawless hair and wrinkle-free clothes. I can’t help but question the authenticity of those photographs.

  2. Taylor, you bring up a good point about magazine photos. It’s hard not to look at a magazine and think how much the images have been altered. Since my stepdaughter is in high school, I have seen those magazine covers as well. The pictures are all perfect, and you know that simply cannot be. It sets an impossible standard for people.

    I found another good article about how much retouching is too much.

    What effect does retouching have on society?

  3. I think authenticity is a huge issue with photographs. Especially in magazines, as Taylor already pointed out. Retouching pictures too much is giving readers information that isn’t accurate. Big no-no in the journalism world. I agree with your guidelines, and feel that those are fair. Personally, I think readers should know when retouching is done.

    • I like what you said about accuracy in photographs. I agree it our job as journalists to represent the truth. You can’t really do that if you are retouching your photos into something they are not. Thank you for agreeing with my guidelines.

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