This Time, Editors are the Problem

Some editors do not have the same respect for the photograph as they have for the written word and have been the problem behind a series of ethical mistakes.

This column appeared in the July 2010 issue of News Photographer Magazine.

Their fake photos show little respect for our work.

By John Long

Lately, there has been a string of digitally altered and faked images appearing in publications of various levels of credibility, from National Geographic to a Sunday weekly subscription paper. In every case, it was not the photojournalist who was the culprit; it was an editor. Most National Press Photographers Association members seem to have gotten the message that professional photojournalists do not change the content of their images. But the undereducated, inexperienced, or just plain arrogant dilettantes who run publications sometimes seem to have little respect for our work or the commitment to ethical ideals that informs it.

National Geographic published a photograph in its February 2010 “Your Shot” section in which editors claimed they were deceived by an amateur who submitted a picture of a dog with fighter jets flying overhead. National Geographic was only doing what newspapers have been doing for some years, asking readers to submit their photographs for the joy of having them published. And getting inexpensive, often free content as part of the bargain.

The problem is that the editor handling the images has no way of vetting them beyond asking the photographer if the image is accurate. If a newspaper staff photographer hands in a photograph that is a fake, you can fire him or her. The same is true for a magazine photographer on assignment. Generally speaking, editors want to see RAW files or “near frames” to insure the authenticity of the images. But you can’t fire someone who does not work for you. When I was editing I always worried I was being had, but I just held my breath and ran the photograph. Geographic has apologized profusely.

More insidious than being duped is dealing with the Philistines who are the classic man-of-one-book newspaper editors. One of the problems is that the economic reality of today has reduced the number of picture editors with experience and judgment to a handful. My former newspaper had five picture editors; now it has one. How can you guard the henhouse when the guards are all gone?

Here are just a few examples, all from the past couple of weeks:

Outside magazine ran a cover photograph of Lance Armstrong and on his T-shirt they Photoshopped in “38, B.F.D.,” which was a reference to his age and wondering if his age really was a B.F.D. for him that might mark the beginning of the end of his career. Armstrong responded to Outside on Twitter: “Just saw the cover of the new Outside mag w/ yours truly on it. Nice photoshop on a plain t-shirt guys. That's some lame bullshit.” Their response was typical of some editors’ Morlock mentality (as in The Time Machine by H. G. Wells): “We understand that our July newsstand cover, featuring Lance Armstrong, has caused a bit of a ruckus. (Thanks, Twitter!). Yes, it's true that, following our cover shoot with Lance, we had some Photoshop fun on the T-shirt he was wearing. BFD. We cop to it right there on the cover – see the line reading, ‘Note: Not Armstrong's real T-shirt.’ We wanted to create a provocative image and make a bold statement about the fact that, because of Armstrong's age, many cycling fans are skeptical of his chances in this year's Tour de France. – The Editors.” For 20 years my response to this type of reasoning has been quite like Armstrong’s – “That's some lame bullshit.” No amount of captioning excuses a visual lie. A lie is a lie.

The Beacon, “a Sunday weekly subscription paper” (whatever that is), concocted a photograph to go with a story on a zoning meeting concerning the expansion of a mosque. Here is how the editor dealt with the criticism according to a story by Hatcher Hurd on NorthFulton.com.

“Trouble is, the photo was a fake. Beacon Publisher John Fredericks, however, said the photo was never intended to be taken at face value. He said it was an illustration of some of the ‘controversial’ elements that arose during what was a calm and civil meeting.

“‘It was certainly not a photograph. For our Beacon readers, our covers are a creative depiction. Consistent readers know our responsibly provocative covers. They are part of our signature and consistent with what we do,’ Fredericks said.

“‘We stand by our story, and we stand by the cover which is merely a depiction of the [meeting],’ he said.”

This is a clear case of a lack of respect for photojournalism and the veracity of the photojournalistic image.

Finally, New York magazine ran a real-looking (but quite fake) photograph of a Bernie Madoff look-alike lounging on a prison cell bed. They called it an illustration. However, just calling something an illustration does not negate the fact that the image itself is a visual lie. It deceives the public. Even though New York magazine is an artsy kind of publication, it is wrong and New York magazine should know better.

In the article there is a quote from Madoff: “Madoff stopped smiling and got angry. ‘Fuck my victims,’ he said, loud enough for other inmates to hear. ‘I carried them for 20 years, and now I’m doing 150 years.’”

Since they made up the photograph, how do I as a reader know this quote is accurate? It is a damning quote but since they lied with the photograph how can we trust the credibility of the quote? The same applies to The Beacon’s story.

If it looks real, in the context of news, it has to be real. Accuracy is the basic premise of all photojournalism. The public expects the news photographs they see to be exactly what the photographer saw and photographed at the time of the event. No excuses, period.


We are pleased to announce that Steven L. Raymer and Sean D. Elliot have joined NPPA’s Ethics Committee. Raymer is Professor of Journalism at Indiana University, has been a staff photographer at National Geographic magazine for more than 20 years, and was named the NPPA-University of Missouri Pictures of the Year Magazine Photographer of the Year in 1976. Elliot is the chief photographer for The Day in New London, CT, and NPPA’s vice president. Both are tireless advocates for honesty and integrity in our profession and are most welcome additions to the committee.