Guest post: Editing of Obama photo raises questions

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the third of these guest posts. Tori Hamby, a UNC-Chapel Hill junior majoring in journalism and English, aspires to go to law school and one day work as a legal consultant for a print publication or cable network news channel. In the meantime, one of her lesser goals is to watch every episode of “Friends” on DVD, in chronological order, before she graduates.

Photo manipulation has been a frequently debated issue in the editing world. While it is blatantly unethical to manipulate photos with the intention of deception (i.e., editing a photo so that it incorrectly portrays or represents the depicted event), editing a photo for aesthetic reasons lends itself to greater discussion.

The Poynter Institute reported that at least two publications edited a photo, taken by Chuck Kennedy of McClatchy-Tribune news service at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, by adding pixels to extend the portion of the sky that was originally pictured. It appeared that the editors’ intentions were to add more pixels so that a headline could be written over the sky, thus taking a more creative approach toward the layout.

By itself, this photo edit seemed quite harmless. Any reasonable reader would assume that the sky extends beyond the photo, so adding a few pixels should not be a big deal, right?

While this may be true, this is dangerous habit for editors to slip into. In its photo guideline policy, The Charlotte Observer states that “backgrounds cannot be eliminated ‘burned down’ or aggressively toned under any circumstances.” The Tampa Tribune’s photo policy states that “readers deserve accuracy and honesty, whether viewing an image or reading words. Their eyes may deceive them, but the newspaper should not.”

This seemingly harmless editorial decision received attention and criticism from The Poynter Institute because photos are one of the key elements of journalism. Non-manipulated photos offer a glimpse into an event that the reader was unlikely able to attend or witness. Photos increase the reader’s trust in the accuracy of the story, while adding color and detail that is not thoroughly expressed in copy.

Like copy, the slightest tweaks to the facts can damage a publication’s credibility. A reporter does not edit a single word in a direct quote because such an edit distorts the truth. The change of a single word essentially turns the direct quote into a lie. The same philosophy should be applied toward photography. The Washington Post states that “photography has become trusted as a virtual record of an event. We must never betray that trust.”

As journalists, we are expected to bring the public a full, unbiased account of the truth. Although tweaking an image may create a prettier front page or photo spread, these should come second to truthfulness and accuracy.