Failing to cover a journalistic crime

PhotoshopCSAltering photographs is nothing new, especially in this digital era. When applied to the news business, it is a Jason Blair-style crime along the lines of plagiarism and fabrication -- maybe worse because altered images are sometimes difficult to detect and images are so powerful. The media watchdogs have largely failed in covering this issue of altered and staged photographs, and they are failing the public. Here is Stephen A., commenting on an earlier post on the Reuters photographer:

Larry is right to point to LGF. The blogs have torn apart the pathetic and biased coverage of the conflict.

Not only the doctored (plural) pictures used by Reuters, but the use of misleading pictures, has been exposed. Such as the woman, dressed in the same outfit, mourning the destruction of her home, only the pictures were taken in front of two separate buildings two weeks apart, and passed off as two incidents. I won't spell out the motives here.

Posted by Stephen A. at 12:07 pm on August 8, 2006

Why has this incident -- and what appear to be other incidents -- received so little coverage? Where is Howard Kurtz? Is he too busy interviewing Katie Couric? The usually on-the-ball media critics at National Public Radio's On the Media have not yet mentioned the scandal.

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times wrote a powerful column on this subject Saturday. Here's a snippet:

There are, however, two problems here, and they're the reason this controversy shouldn't be allowed to sputter to its inglorious conclusion just yet: One of these has to do with the scope of what strongly appears to be wider fabrication in the photojournalism Reuters and other news agencies are obtaining from their freelancers in Lebanon. The other is the U.S. news media's grudging response to the revelation of Hajj's misconduct and its utter lack of interest in exploring whether his is a unique or representative case.

Thus far, only a handful of relatively brief stories on this affair have appeared in major American papers. The Times picked up one from the Washington Post, which focused mainly on the politics of Johnson's website. The New York Times, which ran one of Hajj's photos on its front page Saturday, reported that it has published eight of his pictures since 2003, but none were altered. It then went on to quote other papers about steps they take to detect fraudulent images. No paper has taken up the challenge of determining whether there's anything dodgy about the flow of freelance photos Reuters and other news agencies -- including the Associated Press, which also transmitted images made by Hajj -- are sending out of tormented Lebanon.

It's too bad this is an opinion column listed under entertainment news, because this altering and staging of photographs is one of the biggest media scandals of the year. Rutten, who comments on issues relating to the media, even picks up on a religion ghost that is sure to draw some controversy:

It's worth noting in this context that there is no similar flow of propagandistic images coming from the Israeli side of the border. That's because one side -- the democratically elected government of Israel -- views death as a tragedy and the other -- the Iranian financed terrorist organization Hezbollah -- sees it as an opportunity. In this case, turning their own dead children into material creates an opportunity to cloud the fact that every Lebanese casualty, tragic as he or she is, was killed or injured as an unavoidable consequence of Israel's pursuit of terrorists who use their own people as human shields. Every Israeli civilian killed or injured was the victim of a terrorist attack intended to harm civilians. That alone ought to wash away any blood-stained suggestion of moral equivalency.

So why is this issue not being explored more thoroughly? All The New York Times managed to come up with is an article looking at the complexities of altering photographs. The only thing that I learned here was that the Soviet Union had an entire department devoted to altering photos. Time's Arts section had a much more honest, if brief, look at the subject -- but with little investigation and more pondering.

Perhaps this is because a blogger uncovered, and continues to uncover, altered and staged photographs. Are the big media outlets tired of being scooped by bloggers? Perhaps it is because people alter photographs more often than anyone is willing to admit, particularly at big media institutions. As a person who used to do a bit of sports photography in college, I know how often photos are edited and cut down to create the most dramatic effect. At one point does one cross the line into altering or staging an image that violates basic journalistic ethics?

Why have the media given the Reuters photographer, whom they say is freelance, what essentially amounts to a free pass? He was caught trying to make an image of war more dramatic, and clumsily at that. He says it was an oversight, but that does not explain why he was altering the photo. Does he sympathize with Hezbollah? What about his photographs that were picked up by the Associated Press? Does AP need to pull those photos?

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