Damaging the Public Trust

When Photoshop Attacks
via Southern Beale and the New York Times

As the enterprise of Journalism shuffles its feet to an uncertain future, and technology hurdles forward at an ever-increasing pace, the relationship between news gathering organizations and the readers who sustain their circulation becomes more and more strained.

So when a journalistic institution, known for its conservative style, clear perspective, and in depth coverage, chooses to alter an image for dramatic effect it should naturally raise questions about not only the story but everything about the reporting within the publication.

Such is the case with the current issue of The Economist.

The image above is both the cover they chose to publish, and the original image. In the original image we see President Obama listening to Charlotte Randolph, President of Lafourche Parish. Also included in the original image was Coast Guard Admiral That Allen.

There is a difference between enlarging an image to focus on a specific element, and taking pains to remove one of the subjects of that image. Both techniques may change the context of the image, however, there is an intellectual dishonesty in removing someone from the image merely because “readers may not know who that person is”.

The image that made it to publication gives the reader the impression that President Obama is standing alone in the face of a crisis that is both troubling from a practical and political perspective. Indeed, the caption included on the cover, The damage beyond the spill points to the political complications of a wide reaching disaster that may have been preventable had circumstances both inside and outside the President’s direct control been different.

Unfortunately, the message that this image conveys, while perhaps accurate from a political perspective, is a dishonest portrayal of the actual event that ultimately reinforces a media narrative of increasing political isolation amid the crisis. The actual image is far more benign; a President seeking counsel from a local official accompanied by the Admiral tasked with overseeing the cleanup effort.

In the end, while there are all kinds of ways to digitally enhance or alter images that the entertainment industry uses for all kinds of purposes. When a news gathering organization does it to push a narrative it damages the trust between the organization and the readers.

Certainly, for some news organizations this trust may or may not be as important to them, but for an organization like The Economist, where long form stories and deep analysis distinguishes them from the vast majority of news outlets, it should be of great importance. And while the image they chose to publish may ultimately support the ideas set forth in the article, using digital tools to create the impression of a reality that never existed is at best ethically dubious, and at worst, manipulation the likes of which one would not expect from a well respected and trusted source.

See also:
Fun with Photoshop – Southern Beale
Manufacturing the Narrative – Daily Kos
Photoshopping the News – Mother Jones
The Economist in Hot Water Over ‘edited’ cover image – The Guardian

1 comment for “Damaging the Public Trust

  1. July 6, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Technology has indeed “hurdled” forward.


    We have all of this wonderful technology that unites us into digital communities but alas the more information we have at our fingertips, the more elusive truth has become, as well.

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