Wednesday, June 18, 2008

PJ ethics during convergence

I was asked the following questions for an upcoming Black Star eBook. I thought y'all might be interested in the answers.

1. In general, how should the news industry deal with the problem of digital photo manipulation? What are news organizations doing wrong -- and right -- today?

As with almost every problem, education is the starting point. Photojournalists need to know digital manipulation is a lie and won't be tolerated.

Most major news organizations have codified guidelines against digital manipulation. The people who violate this basic tenet of reader trust do so willfully. Ultimately, responsibility is placed squarely on the person who physically eliminates an electric wire or soda can.

Having laid blame where it belongs, the industry needs to spread the knowledge of these rules to other portions of the industry in terms they understand. If our co-workers don't understand our ethics, they won't hesitate to request we violate these unknown rules. We must explain our ethics to them in a their own language.

If a reporter requests we do something unethical, for example, we could ask if they "make up" quotes in their stories. While they should recoil from the notion, the actions are exactly alike. A lie is a lie.

Photographic organizations need to partner with the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society for News Design, state press associations, other industry-related organizations and universities to educate the entire workforce and reduce the pressure for good people to do bad things.

While digital manipulation gets the most notice when it happens at a top-100 newspaper, it's far more likely to occur at a tiny community paper or regional magazine. These publications are the training grounds of tomorrow's photojournalists and page designers. If unethical habits begin at this level, they're unlikely to halt as these people move to larger publications.

Educating all news professionals at the entryway of the industry and holding them accountable for their actions is the most consistent way to ensure continuation of ethical standards.

2. Do print photojournalism and television photojournalism, in practice, have different ethical standards (on issues such as staging shots, for example)? If so, how this should be addressed in a converging industry?

Ethical standards of the two entities are largely historical and cultural differences. Radio and television (RTV) are regulated by the government (FCC). Newspapers are not and are Constitutionally protected from such regulation.

Broadcast RTV outlets originally used public airwaves and were regulated as "entertainment." Using broadcast media for news is a relatively recent development. While early broadcast news pioneers came from the newspaper business, most recent broadcast celebrities have not.

This divergence is often compounded at universities. While some universities do understand the connection, others continue to place RTV majors in the theater arts departments rather than journalism.

At my university, the two colleges were literally on opposite ends of the campus. I don't recall any RTV students in my journalism or media law courses.

If television photojournalists are surrounded by actors rather than journalists, it's understandable they would have a misguided sense of ethical standards. Actors appreciate and strive to achieve believable illusions rather than authentic reality.

While many individual television photojournalists are outstanding ethical beings, the pressure on them to act unethically (and be rewarded for such actions) is extreme.

The best approach would be to remove RTV photojournalists from the corrosive learning environment. Additionally, the role of actor/anchor should be minimized. Considering how much money is vested in this current structure, I don't see it changing anytime soon.

3. Where should photojournalists ultimately turn for ethical guidance? The NPPA? Their individual employers? Somewhere else?
The NPPA and other ethical photojournalists are the best places to turn for guidance and role models. However, the behaviors of photojournalists rest entirely on the shoulders of those individuals.

The guidelines are codified and well established. Adherence to the guidelines is expected.

4. In what ways do you think the ethics conversation might change going forward? For example, do you think it's time for "dirty words" in photojournalism -- like "photo illustration" -- to become more accepted in practice, so that photographers won't have as much of an incentive to be deceptive when altering photographs?

In a news environment, photo illustrations should be deliberate and obvious. A pig riding a flaming motorcycle while juggling sharks is a photo illustration. Digitally removing a soda can from an image is simply a lie.

Minimizing the photo illustration term and allowing photojournalists to digitally manipulate images or set up images is contrary to journalism and truth. The notion of lowering this standard is a ridiculous, destructive idea. It promotes lies and punishes truth.

No news image is made "more important" through digital manipulation. The manipulated images and the people who create them have cheated authentic photojournalists and the public.

Meanwhile, I don't want to appear draconian about Photoshop.

I have no problem with professional commercial photographers. They create stunning visual fiction. They are handsomely paid to do so. I applaud them because that's their profession, and they don't claim to tell the truth.

Photojournalists chose to tell the truth for a living.

I'll also note that until the most recent cameras, it was common to get dust on a digital sensor. Before these "dust proof" cameras, we got dust and lint on our negatives and sensors. In both cases we "spotted" the prints or scans to make the final image look like the actual scene.

Nobody saw a 12-foot-long rope hovering in the air - it was lint or a hair on the shutter. It wasn't visible to anyone other than the film, scanner head or digital sensor. By spotting this aberration, the final image more closely resembles the reality.

However, it doesn't take a genius to understand a soda can, people's legs, electrical wires and such aren't dust.

The acid test is simple. If another photographer stood beside a photojournalist, would they capture the same image? If the answer is yes, it's a spot. If the answer is no, it's a lie.

Lastly, we need to address professional competitions. Although there have been two recent notable instances of photojournalist deliberately manipulating images on deadline, it's highly uncommon. Most photojournalists transmit deadline images as fast as they can.

The problems often occur during competitions. With our industry being as competitive as it is, some photojournalists make unethical decisions to try to beat the competition. Much of this parallels the highest levels of sport competition.

Just as sporting organizations have become better at identifying steroid users, pro photo competitions have gotten better at identification and stripping awards from digital cheaters.

Software currently exists to identify cloned pixels. I'm certain it could be applied to video as well. This quickly identifies digitally manipulated images. It could be incorporated into many applications in the future and eliminate the desire to present false images.

However, unlike sports, photo contests don't elevate the honest, ethical photojournalists left in the wake of deceit. Professional photojournalism competitions should select "alternatives" like sporting contests. If contest officials later determine a contest was awarded to a false image, not only should awards be stripped, but those who were beaten by a lie should get their rightful awards.

The 2nd-place finisher in a contest would have won 1st place if someone hadn't tried to steal the award. Instead of a consolation prize and bitter experience, the rightful prize should be awarded to the ethical, honest, honorable photojournalist. This would be most profound to the photojournalist who would have won 3rd place.

Until good photojournalists are rewarded for quality images and ethical behavior, the motivation to lie and cheat will remain stronger for some.

Enough for now,

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