Is Photo Retouching Ethical In Visual Journalism?

August 7, 2013

Is Photo Retouching EthicalThe old saying “a picture’s worth a thousand words” never was more appropriate than when applying to the field of visual journalism. Visual journalists capture events in history, politics, sports, nature, science, popular culture and human drama AS they happen, and because the camera never lies, these events-as-captured-on-film are believed to be accurate and trustworthy accounts.

Visual narratives and reports in the form of photographs and videos are quite often taken much more seriously and literally than even website, newspaper and magazine articles or even first-hand testimonies by eye-witnesses. After all, eye-witnesses often have discrepancies in their versions of what transpires at a crime or accident scene, since humans can make mistakes in what they see due to their angle or perspective, what they  wish to believe is true, or because they have motives for not telling the complete truth. But a photographic report is a snap shot of physical reality, and thus is an unbiased and objective account of what has actually transpired. Indeed, another old saying that has always been regarded as true is the following – “the camera doesn’t lie.”

The advent and arrival of visual editing software such as Photoshop has changed everything, or certainly has the potential to do so if journalists are not careful. With software such as Photoshop, today’s cameras can lie. Skies can be bluer, grass can be greener, people can be inserted or deleted from scenes…entire landscapes and cityscapes can be rearranged so as to look more aesthetically appealing. At first this seems like a great idea, as artists, photographers and graphic designers can now rearrange visual documents to better-suit their purposes. Calendars, magazine photo-shoots, cards and posters can look better than reality thanks to the power of the touch-up – a process made amazingly simpler since the arrival of digital film and digital editing.

But with visual journalism, the only true purpose is to report the facts in a visual manner that viewers can understand. Manipulating the factual nature of a photograph can thusly only lead to diminishing the veracity and power of that photograph. It can also lead to the diminishment of respect for visual journalism itself – if a viewer can’t be certain a photograph is “true” and actually depicts an event as it happens, why should they believe any photo presented in the future? In the end, retouching photos as a visual journalist only leads to post-modern doubt about the accuracy and truthfulness of any reporting – the exact opposite of what any journalist hopes to achieve with his or her work. If a journalist can’t be trusted to be telling the truth, why read or view their work at all?

Consider this fascinating article from Mediabistro on 10 News Photos that Took Retouching Too Far and consider the far-ranging effects of manipulating your audience. Do you wish to be branded as a “liar” in your work as a visual journalist? Do you want the websites, magazines, newspapers or other news sources you work for to be labeled as “untrustworthy?” That’s really the only outcome that can result from distorting actual events with the process of retouching photographs. Yes, cropping-out certain elements from a photograph is a widespread practice. And yes, augmenting colors or certain elements of an image to reinforce that picture’s message is almost common in some circles. But the line between “enhancing” a photographic image and distorting its true message can become very hard to distinguish. And woe to the photographer and media source that gets caught telling lies with their photos!

Unless you desire to open an entire Pandora’s Box of consequences, it’s best to leave photo manipulation to the work of glamor photographers and movie special effects wizards. Let the core goal of visual journalism – reporting the truth, as it happens – and the impact of pure reality, be your guides as you present your work to the waiting world. There is a reason, after all, why “journalism” and “fiction” are two different words.