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|| News Item: Posted 2006-09-04

Digital Manipulation: 'I believe the hiring of freelancers, in this case, may be partially responsible for the mess we now find ourselves in as professionals.'
By Dennis Dunleavy, Southern Oregon University

In the weeks following revelations of digitally altered news photographs from the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, a great deal of criticism has been aimed at the practice of photojournalism.

Those who believe that photojournalism has failed in its mission to fairly and accurately report world events in this instance may feel justified, but is the profession doomed? Can public trust and credibility ever be restored, or was it ever there to begin with?

For the purposes of argument I would like to suggest that discussions involving the credibility and believability of photojournalism must be expanded beyond the blogospheric banter of manipulating images in Photoshop.

For many scholars, as well as professionals, this conversation remains important, but there is also a need to include other factors negatively influencing public attitudes toward the media in general and toward photojournalism specifically.

Photojournalists, in my opinion, must help educate the public to understand an array of complexities comprising visual reportage including, photo manipulation, subject/photographer interaction, as well as the socio-economic pressures facing the media today.

For decades, photojournalism has been challenged by the way in which technologies impinge on professional practices and conduct. Beyond technological considerations, however, there are a host of other ideological and sociological factors confronting professionals today. Not only should we be concerned with altering images, but we also must consider how easily photojournalists seem to be exploited by political and business interests.

In an on-going survey, conducted for my Weblog, respondents (n=421) reveal a variety of attitudes toward photojournalism.

Although not representative of any particular group, the survey calls attention to several concerns that have not completely surfaced in the current debate. Despite the focus on post-production alterations---adding and removing objects, darkening skies, etc., there are other issues involved in the creation of news content that deserve greater reflection as well as public attention.

For example, early in the debate, I wrote about how Western news services have become overly dependent on non-western-trained photojournalists for images.

Needless to say, this idea did not win much sympathy with professionals who believed that I should just stick to focusing on digital manipulation and not go deeper into the structural issues plaguing the media today.

For the sake of this argument, I would like to persist a bit further with this issue since I believe the hiring of freelancers, in this case, may be partially responsible for the mess we now find ourselves in as professionals.

Not all professional photographers share the same ideals and values.

Specifically, the practice of hiring of freelancers who have access to Hezbollah controlled areas in the conflict were not held up to the same level of ethical or professional scrutiny as their Western competitors. In the race to acquire images with the most impact, wire services put themselves into a difficult, but often very cost-effective, position of paying freelancers who may have political connections and biases.

The practice of hiring "in-country" freelancers for images that big news organizations find difficult to obtain for an array of reasons has been going on since the Vietnam War.

However, with the immediacy of the digital camera and the ability to transmit pictures instantly, conventional methods of editing and oversight have been set aside. At least this is what we are told was the case in at least two photo-manipulation cases. The practice of hiring freelancers in war zones makes sense to big cost-conscious news sources. Without being overly callous here, in-country freelancers are also seem incredibly disposable when compared to the life of a Western journalist. This is not necessarily a criticism of the individuals who risk their lives daily to provide the West with fresh reportage, but more of an indictment of commonplace business practices used by an industry obsessed with getting images, video, sound, and information on the cheap.

While we should condemn photojournalists, in the case of the Lebanese conflict, who mislead the public through poorly executed Photoshop skills; we must also look beyond individual behavior so that we can understand the social, political, economic structures embedded within corporate news organizations that are enabling this sort of behavior. Of course, it is much easier to condemn an individual for an indiscretion than it is to seek to change an entire industry.

About the Survey

Some of the more interesting findings on the survey to date suggest that a majority of respondents (83 percent) believe they have seen digitally altered pictures in the news within the past five years. More than 95 percent of people surveyed believe that adding or removing objects from a picture is a form of manipulating reality. At the same time, only 55 percent feel that changing the color of the sky to make a picture appear more realistic is a manipulation.

Interestingly, nearly 78 percent of respondents confided that a lot more photographers than most people believe have manipulated images in terms of altering content or changing the tone of the picture to make it more dramatic. This revelation, for me, suggests that the people who took the survey have may have become more cynical with the profession then in the past. This same group (88 percent) also revealed that they think news pictures can and do influence foreign policy decisions.

When asked if the general public doesn't care if a photographer alters an image to make it more dramatic, more than 70 percent disagreed. Respondents think the public does care if pictures are altered.

One of the more surprising results coming out of this study relates to whether people think photo-ops arranged for the media are a form of manipulation. In this small survey, 41 percent (n=131) agree, while another 27 percent (n=81) strongly agree. This means that neatly 70 percent of respondents feel that pictures that are managed and staged for the media are forms of manipulation.

Being a person that attempts to connect the dots whenever possible, it seems pretty clear to me now that definitions concerning forms of photographic manipulation need to be expanded upon and clarified by news organizations, professional groups, and the public as well.

Without considering the complexities involved in the visual practice of photojournalism that include but are not limited to pre-visualization, image capture, and post-production processes, public confidence in the profession may be impossible to regain in the near future.

(Dennis Dunleavy is an assistant professor at Southern Oregon University. You can read his rants, musings and other writings at:

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