NPPA Calls Newsweek's Martha Stewart Cover "A Major Ethical Breach"

Mar 9, 2005

DURHAM, NC  – The National Press Photographers Association, the society of professional photojournalism, today said thatNewsweek magazine’s use of an altered photograph of Martha Stewart on its cover last week was “a major ethical breach.” Stewart’s head was superimposed upon the body of a model who was photographed separately in a Los Angeles studio, and the composite image was published on Newsweek’s cover.

“NPPA finds it a total breach of ethics and completely misleading to the public,” NPPA president Bob Gould said today. “The magazine’s claim that ‘there was a mention on Page 3 that it was an illustration’ is not a fair disclosure. The average reader isn’t going to know that it isn’t Martha Stewart’s body in the photograph. The public often distrusts the media and this just gives them one more reason. This type of practice erodes the credibility of all journalism, not just one publication.”

NPPA Ethics Committee chairperson John Long asks, “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.”

“Readers aren’t stupid. They’re critical thinkers,” says Mike Longinow, a former newspaper reporter and photojournalist who now teaches reporting, editing, and photojournalism at Asbury College in Wilmore, KY. “And their belief in the credibility of print media has been slipping for some time in this country. Many don't believe what they read. And when they can't believe what they see, either, in the visuals that are intended to invite their reading, they'll vote with their feet. They'll turn away – and not just from Newsweek. They'll be turned off to publications that care about visual and written integrity. That’s what makes this case (not the first one in recent decades) so tragic.”

It’s been more than a decade since the controversy over the O.J. Simpson arrest story when Timemagazine admitted it had darkened the police booking mugshot of Simpson on its June 27, 1994, cover, while Newsweek ran the unaltered photo on its cover. “Photojournalism classes and workshops at NPPA, at the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and at Associated Press Managing Editors’ conventions have been posting images of the O.J. Simpson magazine covers for years as examples of what not to do,” said Longinow. “It's been a ‘never again’ kind of lesson that we, as faculty and not a few photography directors have tried to reinforce.

“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?’”

“The best way to fight the continued erosion of trust in journalism as a profession is to maintain and promote the highest possible ethical standards,” says John B. (Jack) Zibluk, an associate professor of photojournalism at Arkansas State University. “That’s particularly important for our high-profile mainstream news outlets, like Newsweek, which attract the most and widest attention from the public as well as set examples and standards for other media outlets. When Newsweek used a ‘tabloid style’ representation of Martha Stewart on its cover, the magazine not only undermined the trust of the magazine's audience, it undermined journalism as a profession.

“This incident and other high-profile lapses of judgment by major media outlets recently illustrate the need for ethical education, for outreach and dialogue between media practitioners, professional organizations such as NPPA, educators, ethicists, and audience members to make an effort to rebuild trust, forge understanding, and strengthen the role of free, honest discourse and speech in our society.”

As a result of the Stewart cover, Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker changed the magazine’s byline and crediting policy. Bylines and illustration credit lines will now appear directly on the magazine’s cover instead of inside the magazine or in the table of contents. The week following the flap over the Stewart cover, Whitaker wrote about what happened and the ensuing policy change in his weekly column, “The Editor’s Desk”:

“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.”

“Newsweek’s new policy of putting a photo illustration credit on what appears to be a documentary photograph directly on the cover does not justify its deception. The Martha Stewart photograph on the Newsweek cover is a lie and it damages the credibility of our entire profession,” says Rich Beckman, head of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s visual communication program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

“I was particularly interested to see Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker’s quote in an online news story: ‘We're not going to make this particular mistake again,’ because Newsweek has previously been guilty of (digitally) straightening the teeth of Bobbi McCaughey (the mother of septuplets) in a photograph, and of publishing an image that appeared to show Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise standing side by side – even though the two pictures had been shot separately,” Beckman said.

“I wonder how many heads have to be attached (to other people’s bodies) before the industry learns its lesson. We've had the head of former Texas Governor Ann Richards placed on the body of a model sitting astride a motorcycle on the cover of Texas Monthly in July 1992, Oprah Winfrey's head placed on Ann Margaret's body on the cover of the August 26, 1989, issue of TV Guide, and in July 2003, Redbook published a cover photo of actress Julia Roberts that USA Today revealed to be a composite created by sticking the head of a year-old photograph of Roberts atop the body from a four-year-old photograph of her.”

“In my media ethics courses, I always bring up the deception used by TV Guide when they put Oprah Winfrey's head on Ann Margaret's body,” said Lee Anne Peck, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Northern Colorado. “The students are always properly outraged, and this example always leads to good class discussion about photo fakery: Is it enough for the publication to mention that the image is a ‘photo illustration’? Is it ever okay to do this? Is TV Guide really a ‘news’ publication? The discussion always boils down to the importance of telling the truth and to the importance of not manipulating the public – which is not socially responsible. How unfortunate that more than 15 years later, I have a new example (Newsweek) to use in class for this discussion.”

Zibluk says, “I find it very disconcerting that Newsweek's editors see ‘labeling’ as the answer to the issue. It's not. The real answer to rebuilding the trust of the audience is to commit to true and accurate photojournalism. The increasing use of staged photographs, montages, and assorted illustrations to illustrate news is a real problem. The tendency to use more illustrations and fewer real photojournalistic images is blurring the line between opinion and truth the same way Web blogs and talk radio are blurring the line between ‘honest news’ and one-sided screed.”

NPPA (www.nppa.org), based in Durham, NC, is dedicated to the advancement of photojournalism, its creation, editing, and distribution, in all news media. NPPA’s mission statement and its newly revised Code of Ethics encourage photojournalists to reflect high standards of quality in their professional performance and in their personal practices.

For more information please contact NPPA president Bob Gould at president@nppa.org or NPPA Ethics Committee chairperson John Long at long@courant.com.