Altered Photos Break Public’s Trust in Media

Russell Frank teaches journalism ethics at Penn State University.

In 1994, when the big news was not America versus Iraq but Tonya versus Nancy, New York Newsday devoted its front page to a photo of the two figure-skating rivals tuning up side by side for the Winter Olympics.

“Fire on Ice,” blared the banner headline. Then, in smaller type, “Tonya, Nancy to Meet at Practice.” A photo caption, in even smaller type, explained: Harding and Kerrigan “appear to skate together in this New York Newsday composite illustration.” The paper had combined two images to help readers picture an event that had not yet taken place. Editors approved the composite because they were satisfied with the explanation that would accompany the image: The paper wasn’t trying to fool anybody.

But when Editor Anthony Marro picked up his paper the next morning, his immediate reaction was, “Uh-oh.” The image overwhelmed the text. People would be fooled anyway.


Marro was right. The Tonya-and-Nancy composite would become an infamous example of the damage digitally altering news photos can do to journalistic credibility.

The Los Angeles Times had its own “uh-oh” moment last week. A photo of a British soldier standing over a group of Iraqi civilians near Basra was actually a combination of two photographs taken moments apart.

This was worse than the Tonya-and-Nancy affair at Newsday. For one thing, the deception, at least on the part of photographer Brian Walski, was deliberate. He told no one at the paper that his picture was a composite. Editors had to find out from a reader who noticed that some of the figures in the background appeared twice. At that point, they could have run a correction or clarification and reprimanded Walski or called him home from Iraq. But they went further, reprinting the altered photo and the two photos it was made from and an explanation of what Walski had done. They also fired Walski. The message to readers and to the paper’s staff couldn’t be more clear: Tampering with reality isn’t a mistake. It’s a violation of everything journalism stands for.

Walski’s betrayal of core journalistic values was more egregious than Newsday’s for another reason: The stakes were higher. Photos from the front can influence public perceptions of how a war is being fought. Think of the indelible images of the Vietnamese girl fleeing the napalmed village and the South Vietnamese police commander executing a Viet Cong prisoner.

The Times’ printing of the two original images enables us to see why Walski put them together. The British soldier’s pose is more dramatic in one. An Iraqi man carrying a child is more prominent in the other. In the composite version, the soldier and the civilian appear to be interacting. Interactions of armed men in uniform and civilians carrying children appear fraught with menace, even if a soldier means a child no harm (recall the impact of the photo of Elian Gonzalez and the immigration agent). The composite is undeniably more powerful than either of the originals.

Similar problems of interpretation arose when Time magazine darkened its cover photo of O.J. Simpson in 1994. The magazine claimed it was just making art: The darkened mug shot was more dramatic than the lighter but otherwise identical image that appeared on the cover of Newsweek the same week.


But some viewers thought Time was making propaganda: The darker, more sinister Simpson appeared to reinforce racial stereotypes. (Lest you think Time is less ethical than Newsweek, consider the latter’s handling of the photo of an Iowa woman who gave birth to septuplets. If Newsweek was going to use Bobbi Ann McCaughey as its “cover girl,” she needed to have nicer teeth. So it “Photoshopped” her.)

Whether art or propaganda, the digitally altered photo doesn’t just influence our understanding of the scene in question. It calls into question the authenticity of every other photo in the paper -- and of every photo in every other paper.

Whoever said the camera never lies was a liar. Photographers -- including some news photographers -- have always arranged scenes and posed subjects. They also have been known to cut and paste one image onto another for comic or dramatic effect. Computers have just made it easier.

Photo editors have zipped up open flies (Orange County Register), grafted Oprah’s head onto Ann-Margret’s body (TV Guide), moved the Great Pyramids of Egypt (National Geographic) and covered immodest women (Louisville Courier-Journal and the New York Times).

Despite all this fakery, readers continue to believe that what they see in a news photo really happened. They almost have to. They need to feel as if they can get reliable information somewhere.

But journalists know very well that this trust is a fragile thing. Try to persuade people that fakes are real enough times and they’ll start thinking that the real ones are fake. That is why The Times moved so quickly to restore its credibility after Walski’s fake was discovered.

As angry as the public gets when a journalist plays fast and loose with the truth, rest assured his colleagues get even angrier.