Yesterday, I purchased my first Photoshop software package and this story made headlines. The Economist used a Reuters photo for its cover, but removed two of the people originally in the photo. Some interpreted this as an attempt by the Economist to make the President appear “lonely”.
Photoshop controversies are not new. The largest controversy I can remember was in June 1994 when Time Magazine darkened a photo of OJ Simpson. The outcry was so intense that Time pulled the cover and re-issued the magazines. The same accusations of skin darkening also flew during the 2008 Presidential elections as photos of Obama appeared in all shades.
In general, I feel that Photoshop is a great tool that can help improve the quality of images. However, I do have a problem when supposed “news” organizations begin taking liberties with these editing capabilities. It’s one thing to shave a few inches off a model for a perfume ad – people view that more as art than accurate reporting - it's another to completely change a photo to fit a reporter's narrative.
In the case of images being used to support a story, I believe the news media should be transparent about changes to an image. Reporter use quotation marks to denote the difference between what a person actually said and the reporter’s interpretation of what means. Now, I understand that quotes can be taken out of context, but at some point, we have relative confidence that the words actually came of the person’s mouth. Edited images offers no such assurances.
The media should let readers know when images are edited, what was taken out, and why. A photo that has been altered could have a small logo at the bottom of the image indicating this was not the original photograph. Then, a footnote should explain what had been changed about the photo. It doesn’t need to be a big deal, but people should know. People tend to trust pictures because there still is a belief that a picture is a more reliable depiction of a scene than any person’s interpretation. Now that any image can be changed, we are counting on the news media to be transparent as to how.