Photojournalism Ethics: The Resurrection Of The Jackelope?

It started as a simple request to the members of the Ethics Committee (Peter Southwick and Steve Raymer) and Sean Elliot, President of NPPA.
“Guys: is it OK with you if I post this as a blog?” In my simple newspaper background, it seemed to be an open and shut case of extreme digital manipulation. What this became was a complex and exceptional examination of magazine cover ethics, proving that ethics is an evolving process and not just a hard and fast set of dogmas. jl

John Long, Ethics Chair, wrote:

It might be time to bring back the “Jackelope Award.” Twenty years ago at an early Electronic Photojournalism Workshop, we created the Jackelope Award for the most ridiculous digitally manipulated photo of the year. Texas Monthly won the first for its cover photo of Governor Ann Richards on a motorcycle wherein the only thing in the photo that was Ann Richards’ was her head.

(The Jackelope, by the way, is the mythical creature that has the body of a jackrabbit but also has antlers. It has been an ongoing joke in the American Southwest for years and you can actually buy stuffed Jackelopes at roadside junk shops. It was created for gullible tourists. I have one in my photo memorabilia collection.)

National Review cover with altered photo

Actual photo from convention

National Review, a conservative news magazine, used a Reuters’ photo showing President Obama addressing the crowd at the Democratic Convention as their October First cover, but they changed all the FORWARD signs the people were holding into signs that said ABORTION. They credited the photographer and Reuters but failed at first to indicate that the photo was changed. Later on the web they said:

The image used on the cover and the contents page of the October 1, 2012, issue of National Review, in both the print and various digital editions, was altered by National Review. It is not the original photograph as provided by Reuters/Newscom, and therefore should not have been attributed to this organization, nor attributed to the photographer.

This photo is a blatant lie. It is not accurate. It is an insult to photojournalism and shows a total lack of understanding of or appreciation for the documentary photograph. I had hoped we were past this kind of stupidity years ago but it seems this battle will go on forever.

This is probably the most egregious cover I have seen in a long, long time and is the best example of a photo worthy of the Jackelope in many years.

Steve Raymer wrote:

Hold on, please, John, before you post this. You are ranting about a magazine cover — an area where traditionally the profession and the public have afforded us a lot wiggle room to alter photos. Covers serve both an advertising and an editorial function and always have. I think you are over reacting just a bit, John.

John Long wrote:

Steve, in case you did not see it, I have attached it, and a real photo of the event. This is beyond a tear added to Reagan’s cheek.

Steve Raymer wrote: Brother John,

This doesn’t pass the smell test. Who is deceived? Is there really a reader of The Nation who would look at this cover and say, wow, I didn’t know this happened? I think most readers are in on the side joke here, don’t you. Far more serious, I think, was The Economist cover last year that altered a photo of President Obama inspecting the Gulf of Mexico shoreline for oil residue that made it appear that the president was alone and had the weight of the world and the global environment on his shoulders. That was a lie; this is a modest joke, don’t you think?

Peter Southwick wrote:

I’m with John on this one. Steve, with all due respect, I have never accepted the whole thing about the cover being “different.” Just my background and my opinion. As abortion is one of the biggest hot button issues of our time, I think this goes over the line. I don’t see it as a joke. I see it as propaganda, and if they want to do stuff like that they should shoot their own photos and mess with them.
Steve Rayer wrote:

Well, Peter, perhaps in the context of THIS particular magazine and its conservative agenda, I agree that the intent is propaganda. But given my background as a “magazine guy” and a “book guy,” we think differently that covers must serve an advertising role as well as an editorial function.

President Sean Elliot wrote:

I understand your concern Steve, but there is a point at which a
manipulation goes beyond the pale …

Newsweek’s princess Di cover … so clearly an illustration … there are
even questions of those “advertising” aspects where it’s a question of
making a cover “work” graphically … the National Review cover really is
a pretty radical editorial commentary …

We do need to stand against photos being converted into editorial graphics

I think the blog could simply cite that cover as one example of the many
of late that make the old Jackalope Award relevant … rather than suggest
that National Review should be the sole recipient?

Steve Raymer wrote:

Dear Sean,

I do appreciate the position you, John, and Peter take on this. I just do not think you can lump magazines and websites of opinion, be it on the Right or the Left, into the same genre as newspapers, which appeal to much wider audiences with the values of impartiality, accuracy, fairness, etc. Magazines, and especially journals of opinion, operate under a somewhat differ set of values and loyalties. I am not apologizing for The Nation or the National Review or The New Republic or any of the rest of them. I just think you are comparing apples and oranges and look a bit silly doing it. If this were Time, The Economist, Newsweek, or the Geographic, I would be onboard. But I doubt a survey of The National Review’s readers would find the same outrage that I sense from you guys. It’s fair to go after magazines that say they reflect the world accurately. But this isn’t one of those times. And it’s great that we can disagree, huh?

Faithfully, Steve

Sean Elliot wrote:

I hear exactly what you’re saying Steve. I just think we need to decry the
manipulation regardless of the orientation of the publication. We may be
less surprised but it does not excuse the lie. If National Review wants to
illustrate … their belief that all the Democratic party cares about is
abortion … then commission a watercolor instead of making a fake photo

we may not be able to expect National Review, or Mother Jones, to
demonstrate any semblance of neutrality, but the documentary images they
use ought to be un-manipulated or not used at all.

John Long writes:

Thank you Steve, Peter and Sean. This is what an ethics debate should be – a difference of opinion debated with respect and friendship.