By Donald R. Winslow
© 2007 News Photographer magazine
TOLEDO, OH – This morning The Toledo Blade published a bombshell story in their Sunday edition that the photojournalism community – along with journalism’s many boisterous critics – will be discussing for days, if not years, to come.
Today the newspaper revealed that former staff photographer Allan Detrich, a one-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and four-time Ohio News Photographer of the Year, is apparently a serial digital manipulator of news photographs. Prior to his resignation on April 7, Detrich had submitted for publication nearly 80 doctored images in only 14 weeks.
Two weeks ago the Blade published a page-one news photograph by Detrich – one of their veteran, if not star, photographers – that turned out to be digitally altered, a serious breach of ethical standards. It was from the first baseball game played by Bluffton University since their team was involved in a fatal bus crash in Atlanta in March that killed five of their members. It was an emotional story, and the game was heavily covered by Ohio’s regional media.
Detrich, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1998, told his bosses that the digitally altered photograph spread across their front page had been transmitted by mistake, and that the image was meant only for his personal use and not for publication. He was suspended while the newspaper investigated. The next day, the Saturday before Easter, as the newspaper started looking at his files, he sent an eMail and resigned. Blade editors spent the following week going through all of his 2007 photographs, both published and unpublished, from the first 14 weeks of this year.
They didn’t have to dig any deeper; the evidence was damning. The results of the Blade's internal investigation, announced by the newspaper this morning, were shocking even to those who feared (or predicted) the worst.
According to the Blade, Detrich submitted 947 photographs for publication in 2007, right up through his last week of work. Of those 947, 233 were published either in the newspaper or on the Blade’s Web site. Editors have determined that 79 of the photographs were clearly digitally altered. Of these, 27 altered images were published both in print and online, and 31 were published only on the Web. The balance of the altered images (21) were pictures Detrich had submitted for publication that were not published, because editors selected, by chance, different photographs to publish from these assignments.
Blade executive editor and vice president Ron Royhab wrote the story in today’s paper explaining the ethical disaster to readers. In a piece called “A Basic Rule: Newspaper Photos Must Tell The Truth,” Royhab wrote, “The changes Mr. Detrich made included erasing people, tree limbs, utility poles, electrical wires, electrical outlets, and other background elements from photographs. In other cases, he added elements such as tree branches and shrubbery.”
Of the Bluffton photograph that brought the problem to light, Royhab reported, “We did not know at the time of publication that the photographer, using a computerized photo-editing tool called Photoshop, had removed the legs of a person wearing blue jeans and standing in the background behind a banner.”
When Detrich was first asked by News Photographer magazine to explain the digitally doctored Bluffton photograph, he denied any knowledge that the picture had been altered. Hours later after meeting with editors, he had an explanation for it. “When questioned by Blade editors, Mr. Detrich admitted manipulating the photograph, offering the explanation that it was for his personal use and that he mistakenly transmitted it to the newspaper for publication,” Royhab told Blade readers. “He was suspended while the investigation continued. The next day he resigned. The Blade's director of photography found that since January of this year, Mr. Detrich submitted 947 photographs for publication, of which 79 had been digitally altered.”
Royhab pulled no punches explaining what Detrich had done:
Mr. Detrich also submitted two sports photographs in which items were inserted. In one he added a hockey puck and in the other he added a basketball, each hanging in mid-air. Neither was published.”
When a Blade reporter or photographer covers a news event, the newspaper and its readers expect an accurate record of the event.
Reporters and editors are not allowed to change quotes or alter events to make them more dramatic. Photographers and photo editors cannot digitally alter the content in the frame of a photograph to make the image more powerful or artistic.
This principle is widely recognized. In 1991, at the dawn of the digital age, the National Press Photographers Association adopted a "Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics," which all members are required to sign.
That lengthy code makes it very clear that altering the editorial content of a picture is a breach of ethical standards. All Blade photographers are members of the association. All of them have signed the code of ethics, and The Blade follows this code.
Royhab concluded by telling Blade readers, “It's impossible to make sense of why this happened, and we are embarrassed by it. But it is important that we are up front and honest with our readers. Mr. Detrich joined The Blade in 1989 and has won hundreds of newspaper photography awards over the years. He was a Pulitzer finalist in 1998. The work he turned in always appeared to be quality photojournalism, which is why editors had no reason to suspect he was digitally altering photographs. In this respect, we let our readers down, and we apologize for that and pledge to you that we will do better.”
Blade director of photography Nate Parson was tasked with investigating Detrich's photographs during the newspaper's internal investigation following the Bluffton picture. Parsons said the Blade uses a Merlin photo archive system. All photographs submitted for publication are transmitted to the Merlin archive. Every few weeks the staff photographers are expected to transfer all the images they've shot on assignment from their laptops to firewire drives for storage. Parsons said his investigation of Detrich's photographs involved comparing what was in the Merlin (photos submitted for publication) to Detrich's photographs downloaded onto the firewire drives.
The news comes at a time when a nasty labor dispute with unions - which included an employee lock-out in August 2006 - has already turned many readers away from the Blade in Ohio's traditionally blue-collar and industrial northwest. Today’s in-depth revelation of their investigation of Detrich’s news photography can be viewed as another installment in a series of damage-control efforts the newspaper has been forced to make with readers lately.
The fallout from the Blade’s revelation included media coverage by their newspaper peers and television in the region, AP stories, and a firestorm of postings in online discussion boards and on Web blogs.
Blade assistant managing editor of administration Luann Sharp told Jennifer Boresz of WTOL-TV News 11 that the Blade has “zero tolerance” to this kind of behavior, and “to prevent this from happening again we plan more spot checking of photojournalists’ work in the future.”
On Toledo’s 13 ABC Action News, reporter Jennifer Jarrell asked Sharp, “The changes may seem minor, but where does it stop?” Sharp responded, “It has to be zero tolerance. If you can alter one small piece of a photo, can you alter a medium size piece? You just can’t alter at all.” In her 6 p.m. newscast report, Jarrell cited the NPPA Code of Ethics, the portion that states photographers can’t alter a photograph “in any way that deceives the public.”
Jarrell’s two-minute broadcast package included an interview with Blade staff photographer Herral Long, who’s been shooting for the newspaper since 1949. Jarrell told viewers that “Long works hard to keep his photographs ‘squeaky clean.’” The Blade staffer said on camera, “We’re observers, and people depend upon us to report accurately what we see.”
Photojournalists have been fired for the ethical infraction of altering or manipulating photographs in recent years, but as far as the public knew those dismissals were for one, or at least a very few, doctored pictures or isolated incidents. The scope of the altered images at the Blade overwhelms past infractions.
Patrick Schneider of The Charlotte Observer lost his job in 2006 because he altered the color of the sky in a news photograph from a fire scene; he had been reprimanded three years earlier for heavy-handed burning and dodging of photographs entered in North Carolina's state press association's contest.
Weeks later, Reuters made headlines when a freelancer in Lebanon covering the 2006 war with Israel transmitted two doctored photographs that made it past editors and onto the picture network. Lebanese photographer Adnan Hajj was fired by Reuters in the aftermath of their investigation, and his images removed from their archives.
At about the same time, el Nuevo Herald doctored two images to create one fake photo to illustrate an anti-Castro story, without telling their readers the manipulated picture was a "montage." Editors at the Miami paper took heat in the press for their ethical lapse, but as far as the public knows no one was disciplined for the fakery.
In 2003, Brian Walski was fired from the Los Angeles Times for combining two separate images from the war in Iraq into one picture that was published in the Times and other newspapers. He was fired when the fakery was discovered, noticed first by an astute reader.
Detrich is a native of Attica, OH, and attended the Ohio Institute of Photography in Dayton. Before that he worked for The Sunday Sun-Journal in Lewiston, ME; The Advertiser-Tribune in Tiffin, OH; the Daily Gazette in Xenia, OH; and The Kettering-Oakwood Times in Kettering, OH. He was also the Blade’s bureau photographer in Washington, DC, where he shot for Toledo and the Blade’s sister paper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which are both owned by the Block News Alliance.
In 1998, the photographer was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in Feature photography for a five-part series "Children of the Underground." It was an in-depth look at a covert underground organization that hides sexually abused children. Two times Detrich was the Ohio News Photographers Association Photographer of the Year (1991 and 1993), he won the Ohio clip contest Photographer of the Year title in 1994, and in 1991 he was the NPPA Region 4 Photographer of the Year.