An Ounce of Prevention

Editors need to be more vigilant in vetting photographs. The most useful tool in an editor’s bag is a healthy skepticism. They also need respect for the work that photographers produce.

This appeared in News Photographer magazine in August 2009.

By John Long

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is the old adage. Given the enormous clean-up costs following an ethical transgression, you might think editors would be more vigilant in vetting the images they handle. There have been a string of cases, the most recent happening a few weeks ago when The New York Times had to withdraw a series of photographs from their Web site after the photographs in question were discovered to have been digitally manipulated. These were a series of photographs that accompanied a story on the American real estate bust that ran in The New York Times Magazine on July 5. They ran for a few days after this on the Web site but were withdrawn when the problems surfaced, too late to rescue them from being printed in the magazine.

Brian Walski embarrassed the Los Angeles Times when he combined two good war photographs in Iraq to make one great photograph. Allan Detrich made a career out of adding and subtracting objects from photos until he was discovered. Reuters had a major headache dealing with the aftermath of Adnan Hajj’s deceptions in photographs he made in Lebanon. The consequences in all these cases were huge: Walski was fired, Detrich left the business, Reuters had to delete all of Hajj’s images from their library. The cost of the cure far exceeded what the ounce of prevention would have cost.

You could say that photography editors need more training in detecting manipulation. You could say the vetting process is not stressed enough in colleges that train editors. You could say editors need more of a technical background in order to be able to see the lies before they publish them.

But I do not see this as a technical issue or a photographic issue. This is a human issue. Photographic training will probably not help photography editors do the technical work needed to unravel some of the digital deceptions possible today. Bloggers seem to have the forensic thirst to find the details that give deception the light of day. I have little use for bloggers but they serve a small but useful purpose in discovering situations such as the recent New York Times problem.

The most useful tool in an editor’s bag is a healthy skepticism.

When you look at the four situations I have mentioned, there is a common thread: editors trusted photographers to do the right thing. The editors may not have been skeptical enough in that they took their photographers on face value. Friendship and a belief in the goodness of their fellow man led them into a laxity that resulted in a disaster.

There were other pressures at work here too, pressures that effect all editors’ judgment in this day and age.

The economics of the newsroom have forced editors to work too fast and have eliminated many of the safeguards that have protected the editorial process. Witness the Reuters case. By eliminating editors and centralizing picture editing, they had no control over their freelancer in Lebanon and they had little time to pour over his images one by one for possible deceptions.

When you buy photographs, either from a freelancer or from a wire service, you do not have control over the photographer. If you are paying someone a weekly salary, you have power to demand the photographer live by your ethical standards. The Times has very high ethical standards, and yet they were burned. Of course, using freelancers saves the company money.

Friendship can blind you. Walski and Detrich were trusted employees. It is normal for an editor to trust his friends. It is hard to be suspicious of your friends, but a good editor is like a good teacher – friendly with the students to a degree but never forgetting who is in charge. It is the editor’s job to make sure the ethical rules are followed. It hurts to call out your friends.

Then there is the insidious temptation faced by some editors: If the shooter is winning contests and bringing praise to the newspaper, do you overlook the hints there might be a problem? You close your eyes. You might not want to challenge the shooter or look like you are making a mountain out of a molehill, so you look the other way and hope it does not come back to bite you on the ass. Detrich was enabled, as long as he kept winning. He was allowed to edit his own work and to do so in private.

The editors I hate are the ones who do not get it, who arrogantly look down on photojournalism as being inferior to written journalism and think all pictures are just eye candy. These editors come from the world of words and somehow ended up in charge of the photography department and have no respect for the in the integrity images they handle: People magazine removing body parts of a victim in a cover photo from the Virginia Tech shootings, Time magazine and the O. J. cover, Time magazine and the added tear in the President Regan cover photograph, Men's Fitness magazine and the beefed up arms of Andy Roddick. This list is endless; the arrogance is mind boggling.

It is not easy being an editor. There seems to be enough education among the majority of editors who come from the ranks of working photojournalists but not enough willingness to be the hard ass in the office. It is important for picture editors to keep the mantra before their eyes that they are the ultimate gatekeeper for the integrity of their publication, and even though the editor must be able to pick the right photograph and know something about design and be able to manage a staff of highly creative photographers, this dedication to integrity has to be their ultimate responsibility.

It is even more important that dedicated photojournalists move into positions of power over photographs and become the picture editors who make the final decisions. We need to replace the know-nothing pseudo-photojournalistic editors who a control our work and manipulate it with distain and total arrogance with people who respect the photographic Moment.