DURHAM, NC –The National Press Photographers Association today sent a letter to Geri Ferrara, editor of The Dominion Post in Morgantown, WV, objecting to the digital alteration of a page-one news photograph she published last weekend and her ongoing defense of the manipulation.
In the incident in question three Marion County House of Delegates members were removed from a photograph published in The Dominion Post because, Ferrara said, they are candidates who are running for re-election.
"All journalism is based on credibility," NPPA Ethics & Standards chair John Long wrote to Ferrara. "Credibility comes from being honest with our readers and viewers and bringing the accurate information every day in everything we print or broadcast. Every story, every news photograph must be accurate. Changing the content of a news photograph creates a visual lie and lying to the public destroys the credibility of every honest journalist and photojournalist in the country."
NPPA's response came after The Dominion Post ran a front-page story about the West Virginia governor signing a bill into law last week. "Erin's Law" was named after Erin Keener, a West Virginia University student who died in a hit and run accident in 2005. "Erin's Law" toughens penalties for deadly hit and run accidents in West Virginia. The original picture of the bill signing was shot by West Virginia Legislative Reference and Information Center photographer Martin Valent, and it was provided to the newspaper. Valent's picture showed five people standing around Gov. Joe Manchin, who was seated at a desk with the legislation and a pen.
But the picture that ran in the newspaper was cropped to remove a delegate who was standing on the far right and then Photoshopped to remove two delegates who were standing behind the governor. In the area where the couple stood in the original picture, the background drapes and wall have been cloned to fill in the area. Delegates Tim Manchiin, Linda Longstreth, and Mike Caputo had been removed from Valent's original. The two women who were left in the altered photograph are members of Keener's family.
To justify the digital alteration of the picture, editor Ferrara told a West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter that the three delegates had been removed "due to the newspaper's policy not to publish pictures of candidates running for re-election during the political season."
She further justified the digital alteration by saying that the picture had been labeled as a "photo illustration" which indicates, she said, that the photograph has been changed.
"Labeling a manipulated photo an 'illustration' in no way exonerates the newspaper," Long said. "If a photo looks real, in a news context it has to be real. No amount of labeling excuses a visual lie."
"Find an alternative to lying," NPPA's letter to Ferrara said. "If the there are no other photos available of this event, then do not run any photo at all or run a head-shot of the governor if you have to run something. You must value your integrity above all else. All other considerations or excuses pale in comparison."
Long said that the issue comes down to a matter of values. "The reasoning used was that your newspaper does not run photos of candidates running for office. The issue becomes what is more important, what is the greater value – do you violate your policy of not running photos of candidates or do you use the computer to remove the candidate from the photo? In our opinion it is far more important not to lie than it is to violate an arbitrary policy."
Ferrara did not return NPPA's requests for a response or comment for this story.
Most credible news organizations abide by ethics policies that prohibit the digital alternation or manipulation of any content, including photographs. NPPA's Code of Ethics strictly prohibits manipulation or alternation of content. News organizations, such as the Associated Press, have policies along the same lines. AP's policy on images says that "AP pictures must always tell the truth. We do not alter or manipulate the content of a photograph in any way. No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph."
Photographer Valent told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that he spoke to the newspaper about his picture being altered, and that the newspaper apologized but at the same time they reiterated their policy as a justification for the manipulation.