NPPA Releases Photo Ethics Statement, Plans Symposium With World Press Photo

By Donald R. Winslow

ATHENS, GA (February 21, 2015) – The National Press Photographers Association's Ethics Committee today released a statement concerning ethics and photojournalism, specifically regarding several ethical considerations that came to light during the judging earlier this month of one of the industry's major annual contests, World Press Photo.

With NPPA on the verge of judging its own Best Of Photojournalism contest next month, NPPA's Ethics Committee has asked for the photographers who were disqualified from World Press Photo's final round of judging to release their eliminated images so as to engage in public discussion about what the industry's standards are, or what the standards should become.

"The news that so many final entries in World Press were disqualified because of digital manipulation is staggering, and it obviously raises concerns about entries in our own contest," NPPA president Mark Dolan said today.

World Press revealed after the judging that 20 percent of the images selected for their penultimate round were disqualified for digital alteration. The files were disqualified based on the forensic examination of RAW files by three experts who were commissioned by WPP. Contestants are required by WPP's entry rules to submit RAW files when requested in order to be judged in the final round. In the WPP contest a year ago, only 8 percent of the final round images were found to have been altered and were disqualified.

"I applaud what World Press has done in terms of requiring finalists to supply RAW images that were then examined by digital experts," Dolan said, "and perhaps that is something NPPA will consider doing in future. One would think that requirement alone would provide a sufficient deterrent, but it seems that is not the case."

Ethics is once again a hot topic in the global photojournalism community in the aftermath of World Press Photo's announcement, and as judging of NPPA's Best Of Photojournalism and the Pulitzer Prize contests approach (in March and April, respectively). The University of Missouri's Pictures of the Year International contest just wrapped up judging their final categories with the last few days.

"These last few days there have been many comments, accusations and demands about this throughout social media circles," Dolan said. "But rather than accusing, I believe what we need to be doing is questioning - WHY is this happening and, more importantly, WHAT can we do to change it?"

Dolan said he reached out to World Press Photo's managing director Lars Boering in advance of today's release of NPPA's ethics statement.

"We are in agreement that our priority should be in making this a learning and teaching opportunity for the photojournalism community, and for those who follow and observe us," Dolan said. 

"To that end, we have agreed that our two organizations will work together to bring together a symposium to discuss and explore the topic of ethics this fall, possibly in New York City at Columbia University. NPPA and World Press are united in our similar goals and priorities. We're here to educate, both the photojournalism community the public at large, and to advocate for photojournalists and photojournalism, and to elevate the importance and significance of photojournalism in a free and informed society. We look forward to working with World Press on this issue for the betterment of the photojournalism community."

Boering responded today, "I'm very happy that we can work together on this. It's exactly what we need. It looks like we can get several parties together and have a proper discussion." 

He's been discussing the possibilities with VII Photo's cofounder Gary Knight as well as with documentary photographer Nina Berman, because Knight was the WPP jury chair one year ago and Berman had exchanged comments with both of them on the topic on a social media Web site. 

"Gary knew about the 8 percent, the problems last year, and Nina responded to Gary on Facebook – and I did – and soon enough we were talking on the phone," Boering said. "And we explained to each other that there was no use debating this on social media, it should be in public ... which moved Gary and Nina to talk to Columbia University about hosting a discussion." Berman is an associate professor of journalism at Columbia, as well as having her master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. As of today Columbia had not yet confirmed whether or not they are interested in being the host site, Boering said. Administration of the Pulitzer Prizes is also housed at Columbia.

Boering said the discussion being planned for this fall in New York "should be little bit more than just ethics ...  it all needs to be discussed, including manipulation, and what the industry thinks is still okay as far as working on the files. It will be a follow-up discussion to the one we will have about this during the World Press Photo Awards Day in Amsterdam in April. And it should go beyond World Press and the photographers as well, because we've realized that a lot of publishing houses are also looking into this, because it's not only the photographers who work on the files but also the art departments as well."

He says that he hopes that all of the industry's major photography competitions will take part in this upcoming ethics symposium. "Because it's their problem too," Boering said.

Traditionally the University of Missouri's Pictures of the Year International contest, as well as NPPA's Best Of Photojournalism, have not performed digital or forensic examinations of the image files for finalists or winners. NPPA's Contest Committee chair Terry Eiler says BOP's entry rules require compliance with NPPA's Code of Ethics, which forbids the digital alteration or manipulation of images as well as prohibiting any attempt to deceive the viewer. And POYI's contest director Rick Shaw says that Missouri's POYi is also based on trusting the photographers. 

"I hope the day never comes that I have to put on a badge and become a cop," Shaw told News Photographer magazine after their contest wrapped up this year.

Boering said, "We also used to be about 'trust' – but eventually we had to become police. Once we started checking the files we found a lot of things. When the technicians were standing there and showing us what they found, we were shocked. Truly shocked. I'm all about trust. But 20 percent [of the finalists] we had to throw out. And the other 80 percent? They were fine. We can trust them."

The WPP managing director was asked about how they handled telling photographers about their disqualified photographs. 

"We sent the disqualified final round photographers a confidential eMail, and we included with it the original file they sent in and the RAW file that was requested and we explained to them why were ineligible. Some people are asking us, 'Why don't you put those pictures out there?' We can't, because we agreed for it to be confidential. NPPA's statement today calls on them to make it public if they want to, but I don't think they will because it might be very harmful to them and I don't think people should be punished for making stupid mistakes. It's a difficult lesson, and one they've already learned."

World Press published a research paper in November 2013 called "The Integrity of the Image" in order to examine "the current practices and accepted standards relating to the manipulation of still images in photojournalism and documentary photography." 

"We put out that paper to figure out whether there is a basic understanding, whether everyone understands that moving pixels around is a no-go," Boering said today. "But some people think it's perfectly fine to move these [Photoshop] 'sliders' around [in Levels and Curves], and that's much more difficult to have a standard because then you start to get into a thing called 'taste.' And you see that these images are also put into print, and they have worked the print file differently than the file they put on the Internet. These are the files where we need to come out with some standards. Otherwise, very fast we'll be entering into the 'art' world. But here at World Press, journalism is at the core."

Boering said most of the images thrown out this year either had things added to, or removed from, the photograph. "It's clumsy Photoshop, and it's too bad because some of the pictures were contenders right up until the end."

It wasn't solely a matter of adding or subtracting content, Boering said. This year the jury was also looking very closing at toning. 

"They looked to see if you make a photo so black that you lose information, and you don't see anything anymore," he said. "That is a line crossed."

The fact that any photograph making it to the penultimate round this year required the submission of a RAW file in oder to remain in competition was different from last year, Boering said. 

"Last year it wasn't all of them, it was only the files that we suspected of something," he said. 

"We've also realized that a lot of photographers today work with others who are experts on working on files, and that can be dangerous as well if the photographer can't be certain of what's happened with their own files."

Also, he admitted, the growing number of freelance photographers who may work without any editorial oversight adds another level of concern. 

"Freelancers who work for themselves may do a lot of things to the files," Boering said, "and it's tempting for them to aesthetically enhance their files, and they can overdo it because they think they have to make their photos better. But most of the time it doesn't even make the photo better. There's so much you can do working on these data files, you can really overdo it."


Here's the statement released today from NPPA's Ethics Committee:

ATHENS, GA (February 21, 2015) – With winners in several of the annual photojournalism competitions being announced, and the NPPA on the verge of judging its own photo competition, once again the public, already skeptical of the idea of journalistic accuracy in photography, is learning that not everyone entering those contests adhered to widely accepted ethical standards in those entries.

Last year World Press Photo announced that eight percent of finalists were disqualified for manipulations to their images deemed unethical by the contest. This year that number rose to 20 percent.

The questions raised by those statistics are numerous. What do we read from the fact that the percentage rose? Are more photojournalists seeing a justification for altering their work? Are they doing it daily, or just for the competitions? What sort of manipulation is taking place?

Debates continue throughout the industry as to what sort of post-processing is acceptable. There is still disagreement about the use of High Dynamic Range in photojournalism. There are some who still contend that selective toning to mask content, or even use of a “clone” tool to do the same, can be considered acceptable.

Is technology moving too fast for journalists to adapt? Are the pressures of the marketplace too great to allow for ethics? Is it more important to stand-out at whatever cost in this market than to stand up for the ethics of accuracy that should, in our humble opinion, be the hallmark of journalism everywhere?

The leaders of the World Press Photo competition should be applauded for setting a standard and enforcing it. The simple expectation that finalists furnish original image files at final judging ought to be deterrent to any manipulations to the contest entries, and yet obviously this is not the case.

The vast majority in the field of photojournalism feel strongly that the ethical standards under which we work are vital to the survival of journalism. The reaction to the news of the disqualifications in one of the field’s most esteemed showcases has caused such furor for just this reason.

Absent the ability to view actual examples of disqualified work, we are left with speculation and hypothetical examples and this is not the stuff from which good journalism springs. We need concrete facts from which to discuss and draw conclusions.

The time has come for those photographers whose work was disqualified by World Press to come forward and present their work in the interest of educating the members of the profession and opening the further dialog as to the development of ethical standards for the practice of photojournalism.

The NPPA Ethics Committee does not believe in conducting a “witch hunt” but we also do not believe that it is in the best interests of any involved in the profession, or in the outside perception of the profession, for matters to remain unresolved.

World Press is within their rights to disqualify images as they see fit. They are also within their rights, perhaps even bound by legal precedent, to refuse to release images on their own.

This is why the NPPA Ethics Committee strongly encourages those involved to release their images and either stand by their work or admit their transgression, and offer explanation and engage in the dialog about what the standards are and/or should be.

At a time when our industry has lost one of its great watchdogs in David Carr and we have seen the downfall of a network news anchor for embellishing the facts, we must now, as much as ever, take actions that show our commitment to factual reporting and the ethical standards that guide our actions.

From the preamble to NPPA's Code of Ethics: Photographic and video images can reveal great truths, expose wrongdoing and neglect, inspire hope and understanding and connect people around the globe through the language of visual understanding. Photographs can also cause great harm if they are callously intrusive or are manipulated.

NPPA's Ethics Committee is chaired by Sean D. Elliot. The committee members are Peter Southwick, Steve Raymer, Bethany Swain, and emeritus chair John Long.