Faking photos online is hardly news. Although the practice of digitally altering images, whatever the reason, is a major concern for mass media, there doesn't seem to be an easy fix.
As Ricchiardi contends, “With new technology, faking or doctoring photographs has never been simpler, faster or more difficult to detect. Skilled operators truly are like magicians, except they use tools like Photoshop, the leading digital imaging software, to create their illusions.” Moreover, “Digital manipulation technology negatively affects news content and presumably damages credibility” Gladney and Ehrlich (1996).
Since 2006, I’ve been conducting research asking professional and amateur photographers what constitutes digital photo manipulation and how it might affect public confidence in the media.
In 2007, for instance, 87 percent of respondents defined photo digital manipulation as changes to the content of a picture after it is made through electronic means. In 2014, however, more than 95 percent of participants agreed with the definition.
Although these results may not come as a surprise, it is important to clarify how people define the terms they use to describe phenomena. In addition, when asked in 2007 if photo digital manipulation is an increasingly important issue in society today, more than 85 percent agreed that it was.
It should be noted, however, that the sample size of the survey differ significantly, with n=112 this year compared to n= 784 in 2007)
Results from the latest survey (March 2014) of 100 participants suggest the following.
- More than 80% of respondents define photo digital manipulation as changes to the content of a picture after it is made through electronic means.
- Nearly 50% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that they can tell when a photograph has been digitally altered. At the same time, some 20% disagreed and 10% strongly disagreed.
- Digitally altered pictures impact how the public perceives the media as a trustworthy, credible, and accurate source of information.
- More than 80% of participants believe that digitally altered pictures appearing in the mainstream media impact public perception of domestic affairs. At the same time, more than 40% of respondents strongly agreed and another 40% agreed that altered images of international impact public perception of world events.
- The general public has difficulty detecting digitally altered news images in the mainstream media.
- More than 60% of respondents believe that amateur photographs of news events, distributed through social media such as Twitter or Instagram, presents a challenge to mainstream media in terms of authenticity and credibility.
In my survey on digital photo manipulation in 2007 I sought the participation of photojournalists and photographers, professionals and enthusiasts, from around the world to help us understand how attitudes toward digitally altered images may be changing.
Last year, more than 745 respondents participated in the annual survey on digital photo manipulation. Part of the study seeks to clarify how photographers define photo manipulation and another part explores how attitudes toward image altering my be changing over time. The study is part of a long-term evaluation of attitudes people have toward accepting digitally altered images in the media and elsewhere.
For example when asked, "I can tell when a photograph has been digitally altered," 42 percent of respondents (n=738) agreed or strongly agreed that they could tell the difference last year. However, 58 percent either disagreed or were undecided about whether they could tell a picture has been altered. Could it be possible that over time, given advances in image editing software, more people will be unable to tell. The survey encourages the participation of both professionals and amateurs photographers and explores other issues such as if it is okay for images of Hollywood celebrities to be altered but not okay for images of politicians.
In terms of defining what constitutes digital photo manipulation four questions were presented:
1) I define photo digital manipulation as changes to the content of a picture after it is made through electronic means.
2) I define photo digital manipulation as a process that helps to make the picture better aesthetically.
3) I define photo digital manipulation as a process that helps to make the objects in the picture more visually interesting.
4) I define photo digital manipulation as a process that changes the content of a picture by adding or removing visual elements from the original.
Other areas worthy of tracking over a long period of time include how photo digital manipulation is defined and whether the issue remains important in the public sphere.
More than 87 percent of respondents agreed to define photo digital manipulation as changes to the content of an image through electronic means, while 44.9 percent believed it to be process that helps to make the objects in the picture more visually interesting. When asked if photo digital manipulation helps to make the picture better aesthetically, 37. 8 percent disagreed, 23 percent had no opinion, and 38 percent showed agreement. In the last question, "I define photo digital manipulation as a process that changes the content of a picture by adding or removing visual elements from the original," more than 85 percent expressed agreement with the statement.