Digital Deception  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   May 2003

Digital Deception   

How damaging is the threat of manipulating photos to the credibility of photojournalism?

By Cheryl Johnston
Cheryl Johnston is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


March 30 was photographer Brian Walski's best day of shooting in Iraq and the day he ruined his career with the Los Angeles Times.

Walski had waited nine frustrating weeks in Kuwait. He had only been in Iraq six days and the scene was intense compared with the food distribution he had been shooting. With a helmet and two cameras, Walski began this day near Basra, capturing 150 images of British troops battling Iraqi paramilitaries, all the while ducking for cover from Iraqi fire. As the day progressed, he captured another 150 shots of panicked civilians escaping the fighting. "It was the best day I had in a string of good shooting days in Iraq," Walski recalls.

But none of the photographs truly captured the day for Walski, so he did something he says he'd never done before. He took two photos of a British soldier in front of a crowd of Iraqi civilians and composed an image on his laptop, using the left side of one photo and the right side of the other. He transmitted his creation to Los Angeles along with 12 other images. The Times and the Hartford Courant unknowingly selected the altered image for the next day's front page while the Chicago Tribune ran it prominently on a jump page.

That day, a Courant employee noticed that several civilians crouching in the background of the photo appeared twice, and the Courant quickly notified Colin Crawford, the Times' director of photography. When Crawford finally reached Walski by satellite phone and he admitted digitally reworking the image, Crawford fired him. That night the Times alerted readers of the deception with an editor's note online. It also ran in the April 2 paper with the two original photos alongside the altered image. The Courant and Chicago Tribune published notices as well.

Soon journalists were talking about the threat of photo manipulation to the profession's credibility. Although photojournalists have known for years that increasingly sophisticated technology has made it ever easier to manipulate photos, Walski's deception caused such a stir, in part, because of the situation: a hard-news image shot by an outstanding photographer for one of the country's leading newspapers.

But it also made waves because the circumstances were "fairly unprecedented," says Kenny F. Irby, visual journalism group leader for the Poynter Institute. "This was a new breach of ethics. To my knowledge, there hasn't been a case where a photographer has manipulated [a photo] in the field in a time-intensive deadline situation."

Even Walski believes his actions clearly crossed the ethical line. "After a long and difficult day, I put my altered image ahead of the integrity of the newspaper and the integrity of my craft," he says. "These other photographers are there [in Iraq] risking their lives and I've just tarnished their reputation."

Many photojournalists agree. "The newspaper industry as a whole cannot sustain this type of exposure," says Clyde Mueller, immediate past president of the National Press Photographers Association and director of photography at the Santa Fe New Mexican.

"The only thing we have to offer the public is our credibility," explains John Long, staff photographer at the Hartford Courant for 32 years and the National Press Photographers Association ethics chairman. "We can say that it is awful once, but if it happens again and again we'll destroy ourselves.... We have to have accurate information."

"You've got young photographers who think [veteran photographers] walk on water," says Kevin E. Schmidt, photo editor at the Freeport Journal-Standard in Freeport, Illinois, who says he tells the photojournalists he trains to be historians who "simply document what's there."

The bottom line is "you never change reality," says Joe Elbert, assistant managing editor of photography at the Washington Post. "Everyone comes back saying, 'Wow. You can't believe the picture I just missed.' " Photojournalists sometimes have to "take the hit and come in and say they don't have anything. It's totally black and white."

Photojournalists, already concerned about image manipulation on magazine covers, worry that if one reputable shooter has altered an image, he's probably not the only one. "If he is doing it, more than likely others are, too," Schmidt says.

"I wonder how many photographers have done the same thing Brian Walski did and haven't been caught," says Pete Souza, national photographer for the Chicago Tribune.

Although he isn't aware of photojournalists doctoring images, Souza thinks it's possible that more deception is taking place thanks to digital cameras and technology that makes manipulation easy--and undetectable if done well. Plus, when journalists are out in the field, editors aren't there to review the images.

For Elbert, a question more pressing than who else might be doing this is why a journalist would risk his career for it. He wonders if it's pressure from the company or from the photographer himself--he can't say "I failed."

Souza speculates that the pressure is particularly intense for war photographers because the photographs are pooled for papers across the country to share. "There are so many great images coming out of Iraq, [that you need] the best images that you can to get published."

"Covering a story on the scale of the war in Iraq, there is a self-imposed pressure to achieve the best possible images," Walski says. "Combining two images or altering an image is something that under any circumstance would never enter my mind, yet on this particular day, under a kind of self-imposed pressure to produce the highest-quality images, [it] did."

David Rees, associate professor and head of the photojournalism sequence at the Missouri School of Journalism, attributes some of the temptation to alter photos to "external or internal pressure to do better and to do more." Rees thinks the entertainment industry's powerful images have raised the expectations of readers, editors and photojournalists for better photographs. "Movies are perfect, so we have this expectation that journalism should be perfect as well."

"The push in the industry is to go to that line where news becomes art," Walski says, pointing to "beautiful images" of "really horrific things" that have been lauded in recent years.

Within the bounds of newspaper ethics, journalists use software to tinker with photos, creating "photo illustrations." Rees thinks placing photo illustrations--even clearly labeled as such--within the same environment as news photos blurs standards. "In my ideal world, we wouldn't be doing it," he says.

But Elbert loves photo illustrations, as long as readers are notified in the caption that the image isn't an ordinary photograph. Poynter's Irby compares the line between news photos and photo illustrations to that between hard-news stories and features or editorials.

The New Mexican's Mueller says that the problem with photo illustrations comes when changes are made but readers aren't notified. "There are photographers who will blur background in basketball photos so action pops out," he says.

Some photojournalists say it would help if each newspaper's code of ethics specifically addressed computer manipulation of images. "I'd like to know if the L.A. Times said [to photographers], 'Here's our ethical guideline before you go out on the playing field,' " Irby says.

The Times' editor's note published April 2 stated, "Times policy forbids altering the content of news photographs." Martha Goldstein, the paper's vice president for communications, says, "We really think we've covered this very comprehensibly and directly."

Asked whether a reminder of his paper's policy would have made a difference, Walski says, "There are no gray areas here. The line is very clear here and I crossed it."

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