by Ctein

There is a clear and powerful rationale behind the NPPA rules against digital manipulation. News photos are important. Not just because they convey daily information to thee and me, but because they are the primary historical record in the modern world. News archives have become the most important cultural database and are vital to historians. Watch a show like the History Detectives and see how often they wind up in some newspaper's morgue to pin down otherwise unverifiable facts. That's not a convenient TV fiction, that's real.

Even the trivial can be significant. I don't think anyone is competent to judge the import of content. I sure know I'm not. An artist thinks nothing about deleting power lines from photos. For the historian and the energy researcher, presence or absence of power lines in photos is very important to charting and analyzing the process of electrification and urban modernization in America. Epidemiologists use photo records to plot historical patterns of EMF.

At casual glance, Adnan Hajj's faked "smoke" picture is only an aesthetic change. But, the original shows one fire burning. The fake implies three or four. When so-called "precision targeting" is a hot political issue, this is not a trivial difference! The fake also shows buildings, both damaged and intact, that don't exist.

(Fun fact: after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, city officials altered photos of the downtown to show buildings intact but burning. In fact, they had collapsed in the quake. The East Coast insurance companies would pay off on fire claims, but they didn't cover earthquake damage. The fraud worked, by the way.)

Even white balance changes can matter. Give me a photo of a slightly hazy day in downtown LA (is there any other kind?) and I can change it from healthy air to a second stage smog alert just by messing with the overall color balance.

Who knew power lines or RAW could be of such import?

Without hard guidelines people will alter important new content, either by intention or innocent ignorance. Alteration is simply too easy and too useful, either for reasons of aesthetics or agenda.

And then there's credibility. With most news sources legitimately challenged over objectivity (an uncapturable beast), engaging in active deception, benign as the intent might be, is suicidal.

It's so tempting to make the picture nicer. So the penalties for violation must be stiff and inflexible, because it must be unacceptable. Journalism is not about writing the prettiest words or making the prettiest photo, it's about doing the best you can within the rules that try to keep the profession credible and useful. If you can't live with those rules, don't be a journalist.

Posted by: CTEIN


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