By John Long
At one of the early Electronic Photojournalism Workshops some 15 years ago, a gentleman from the Washington D.C. bureau of Reuters came up with the idea of a Jackalope Award for the most digitally altered photo of the year. Texas Monthly won the first Jackalope for a cover photo of Governor Ann Richards sitting on a motorcycle in which the only part of the photo that was Ann Richards’ was her head. We have not awarded any Jackalopes in years but we may need to this year, and one of the contenders could be a photo from Reuters. The gentleman in question no longer works on the news side of the business; if he were, he would be mortified.
Last week (as I write) Reuters fired a freelance photographer working in Lebanon who, in one photo, increased the amount of smoke in the sky after a bombing and in another photo, added missiles or flares being shot by an airplane. He created photos that lied in order to promote his career (or in the worst possible scenario, created photos to support his point of view on the war). Reuters not only killed these images but also examined every photo filed by this photographer during his time working for Reuters.
They had to. Extreme measures had to be taken to try to preserve Reuters’ credibility. One or two dishonest photos called into question everything done by all the honest journalists working there. Distrust spreads like a virus. There are all sorts of rumors floating around now about supposed faked images coming from the region.
This incident is indicative of a much bigger and insidious problem in our profession: the increasing lack of oversight or vetting of photographs and photographers.
Who was watching over the photos being filed from Lebanon and checking the captions? For that matter who was watching over the editors at El Nuevo Herald where two photos were combined to show how police in Miami were not doing their job? Or for that matter, who looked at Patrick Schneider’s recent fire photo before it was published?
The watchword in journalism these days does not seem to be “credibility” or “honesty” or any such word. It seems to be “cost cutting” or “bottom line” or “centralize” or any of a number of like concepts. Reuters has consolidated its photo control and editing process to one location, Singapore. It is a long way, in distance and in culture, from Lebanon.
It is popular to credit bloggers with discovering many of the latest transgressions. They may have discovered the problem with the photos from Lebanon but ultimately who controls the bloggers? No one. It is like having the inmates running the insane asylum. There is an old golfing proverb that says: “even a blind squirrel can find an nut sometimes.”
Photographers are still second-class citizens in today’s newsrooms. We have made tremendous strides in the 35 years I have been a photojournalist as we have progressed from being a service department to become a profession. But we are still a long way from being equal to word people. This is evident in the lack of respect we find in the newsroom.
Watch the editing process at most newspapers: Days, weeks, months are expended on the gathering and writing of stories. Then hours and hours are spent editing the story. If it is a sensitive story, it goes to the lawyers for checking. Finally it passes through the copy desk for a final edit. Then someone asks, ‘Where are the visuals?” A photo or two is thrown in the package and it is published. Photos and graphics are an after thought, an illustration, eye candy.
If newspapers respected the photo as much as they respect the written word, as much care world be taken with the gathering and preparation of the visual information as with the written information. It is false economy to scrimp on photo editing. The public deserves accurate information both written and visual and the credibility of all news depends on the accuracy of both.
For those of us in the world of visual communication, it comes down to a matter of respect.