Manipulated Photos End With Firing

This column ran in the March 2012 issue of News Photographer Magazine. It details the controversy that ended with the dismissal of Bryan Patrick from the Sacramento Bee for combining two photos in order to make one better photograph.

By Donald Winslow, Editor

Award-winning photojournalist dismissed after altered pictures discovered.

 Editors at The Sacramento Bee fired veteran staff photojournalist Bryan Patrick in February for “violating the paper’s ethics policy forbidding manipulation of documentary photographs.”

 The news came days after the award-winning photographer was suspended when a reader sent an eMail to Bee editors that questioned the validity of a Metro B1 section front picture by Patrick. The photograph was from a bird-watching event, and it been published earlier that week, on Sunday.

 Editors investigated the claim and determined that Patrick’s picture had been digitally altered. He wasn’t immediately fired but his suspension was continued while an investigation was launched to examine his previously archived images.

 In a “Correction To Readers” published online first and then the following day in print, Bee editors said that Patrick’s photograph of a snowy egret taken at the Galt Winter Bird Festival had been “digitally altered by the photographer in violation of our standards.” It had been published on the section front as part of a two-picture combo. The second photograph showed a group of other photographers at the festival, with telephoto lenses and tripods, who were also documenting birds.

 Two days after Bee editors told their readers of the violation, the newspaper published a story headlined “To Our Readers” saying Patrick had been fired.

 Patrick has been an NPPA member since 1978, and over the years he has been a consistent winner in NPPA’s Regional and National clip contests as well as in the organization’s Best of Photojournalism competition. He did not respond to a telephone message and an email requesting comment on the situation.

 In the firing story the Bee told readers, “The photograph ... showed a snowy egret trying to steal a frog from a great egret. In the original photograph, the frog was not as visible, so Patrick merged in a different image of the great egret.”

 They also told readers that editors investigating Patrick’s archives found two additional images that had been digitally altered, also a violation of the Bee’s ethics standards. One photograph, published online last September, showed a lone person in a sunflower field. Bee editors said Patrick had digitally altered the image to remove his own shadow and replace his shadow with sunflowers.

 Another photograph, from a 2009 Auburn wildfire, had been published “unaltered” in the Bee but editors say that Patrick had “enlarged the flames” in the copy of the photograph he submitted to the San Francisco Bay Area Press Photographers Association’s annual contest. The picture won an award in that contest. Bee editors said an anonymous email to editors had also “cast suspicion” on that picture.

 That same photograph by Patrick had also won 1st Place in the Natural Disaster category of NPPA’s 2009 Best of Photojournalism competition. Any digital alteration of a news photograph also violates NPPA’s Code of Ethics.

 Bee senior editor of visuals Mark Morris told News Photographer magazine that the newspaper would not issue any comment beyond what they said in their published stories.

 “We are faced again with the credibility of a respected photojournalist being destroyed by a self-inflicted wound in a most horrendously needless way,” NPPA Ethics & Standards Committee chair John Long said after Patrick’s firing.

 Speaking for the committee Long said, “There is no excuse for the combining of these images. He has apparently taken two decent photos and – in the hopes of making one excellent photo – has instead created a visual lie that harms his reputation and the reputation of his newspaper. This is a sad day for our profession.”

 Long said that the one and only thing we as photojournalists have to offer our readers and viewers is our credibility.

 “If we destroy that by lying, we harm our entire profession. Our integrity has to be valued above all other aspects of our work.”

 Those who follow the ethical practices of visual journalism might be struck by the similarity of what Bee editors said Patrick did to an incident in 2003 that resulted in the firing of Los Angeles Times photojournalist Brian Walski. Covering the war in Iraq, Walski combined two images into one picture that was published in the Times and other newspapers, prominently on many front pages. Walski was fired when the fakery was discovered.

 Then four years later editors at The Toledo Blade discovered that dozens of doctored images had been published. The digitally altered photographs were the product of their four-time Ohio News Photographer of the Year, a one-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, staff photographer Allan Detrich. Suspended from work in April 2007 while editors conducted an investigation, he resigned a few days after the incident made headlines.