A simple rule

May 14, 2013 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: photojournalism.

The rule is so simple:

Don’t change a picture.

Or, put another way:

Don’t make a picture look like something it isn’t.

However it’s stated — and you can state it in some complex ways — the concept is simple enough. A picture ought to show what the camera and photographer saw. It’s the essence of truth-telling. It’s the basis of journalism.

Yet, it’s happened again. A prominent photo has been found to be a lie. It isn’t what the camera or the photographer saw. It was changed beyond recognition, tampered with, made into a “photo illustration” — a euphemism, in this case, for “a lie.”

And it didn’t just happen in some podunk place where journalism is a joke. It happened in a national publication where the editors have had years of professional experience.

The cover of Newsweek’s March 14 carried a photo of Martha Stewart, emerging from behind a curtain. (Stewart was due to be released from prison just a few days after the magazine appeared.) It looks like an exuberant woman, happy to be free. The body language of the photo supplements the facial expression. Pure joy.

The face was Martha’s, but the body wasn’t. It was an unnamed model. Martha, as far as we know, had never been near that curtain. Inside the magazine, somewhere on page 3, Newsweek told its readers in pretty small type that the cover was a “photo illustration.”

Since then Newsweek has been getting slammed, and rightly so. Mark Whitaker, the editor, has offered a lame excuse and a lame apology. Here’s what he wrote in the next week’s edition:


Seeking an image that would capture our take on the story — that Martha Stewart is emerging from prison in a much stronger position than anyone expected — we asked artist Michael Elins to create a humorous photo illustration of Stewart coming back looking better than ever. We identified the result as a photo illustration on our table of contents, and thought the combination of exaggerated imagery and cover line ‘Martha’s Last Laugh’ would make clear that it was playful visual commentary, not a real picture of Stewart or an attempt to simulate one. But we quickly realized that it wasn’t obvious to many of you at all. For that, we sincerely apologize. We would never seek to deceive our readers and are committed to respecting the integrity of serious news photography. To avoid confusion in the future, starting this week we will identify the origin of our main cover image in a credit on the cover itself.

Their mistake was trying to create a “humorous photo illustration.” Why not do good journalism? Why not show a real picture? Or why not commission an artist to do a drawing or cartoon? And when the “photo illustration” came back, why didn’t someone stand up and say, “We can’t use this. It looks too real.”

The National Press Photographers Association has taken Newsweek to task for this serious misjudgment. A news release on the organization’s web site calls the cover a “major ethical breach.” John Long, the chair of the NPPA ethics committee, says in the release:


>When will they ever learn? No amount of captioning can ever cover for a visual lie. If you respect the written word enough not to lie, then you should respect the image enough not to lie as well. If it looks real, then in a news context it better be real.

The news release also quotes Mike Longinow, a former newspaper reporter and photojournalist now teaching at Asbury College in Wilmore, Ky., as saying:


We try to make the point that photojournalism is about truth. It’s about reality. We tell our students to take their hands off the keyboards, put down the mouse, and listen. ‘Manipulation is easy,’ we tell them. ‘Storytelling with real truth behind it is not. Don’t go with the easy fix. Be patient, be relentless, and the truth can be put in your publication.’ What Newsweek has done is pull the rug out from under all of that. And they’ve done it with a cover that seems to say, ‘What lesson?’

What lesson, indeed?

The rule is certainly simple enough and bears repeating: Don’t change a picture. Understanding it is not hard.

Following the rule, apparently, takes a lot of discipline. More discipline that the editors at Newsweek were able to display.

Jim Stovall (Posted March 10, 2005)

Note: The NPPA news release mentions a number of other instances where photos have been changed and is well worth reading.

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