At a time when public confidence in journalism continues to slip, questionable professional practices or lapses in personal judgment are having as much an impact on the industry as they have on a given individual.
Last month, when, Toledo Blade photographer Allan Detrich digitally altered an image to make it less distracting, his actions, whether intentional or accidental, provide yet even more fuel to the fire of public distrust. Apparently, Detrich's creative license may prove to extend beyond this one incident.
We now have reached a point in our society when, at times, the media seems determined to abdicate a portion of its commitment to the truth, for expediency.
As a representative of an industry already under intense public scrutiny, Detrich, who recently resigned from the newspaper, now joins a growing list of photojournalists, such as Charlotte Observer photographer Patrick Schneider, Lebanese freelancer Adnan Hajj, and Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski, who have succumbed in recent years to the temptations of digital technology.
The big question these incidents raise is simple: Why do some photographers feel compelled to manipulate images, while others live with what they get? Getting to the answer, however, is far more complex and may reside actually in a culture, which excels in competition and individualism.
People do not like being lied to. Digital manipulation, the addition or subtraction of contributing or distracting elements in a frame, is a type of fraud and lying.
Jonathan Wallace observes, “The reason that I hate lies is because, like you, I wish to navigate carefully through life, and to do so I must be able to calculate my true position. When you lie to me, you know your position but you have given me false data which obscures mine.”
Journalists have always been moral agents of culture and societal tastes. News content falls within an informational/representational system that changes over time. Journalism has its good times and its bad times throughout history. Within this informational/representational system, however, truth has always remained a core journalistic virtue. Journalists must struggle to obtain and maintain truth in reportage because every situation they encounter is slightly different – always presenting differing degrees of moral complexity.
The act of altering an image to correct a deficiency may seem innocent enough on the surface, but deeper down the shift from fact to fiction signifies a moral choice that is informed by either ignorance or duplicity. Regardless of motive or rationale, Detrich’s case should remind us that journalists function to serve the public good through a series of professional and societal expectations and obligations that are imposed upon them.
In this digital age, these expectations and obligations become intensified to the point, where opportunities to make things look better or to get the better of the competition are just too easy.
Ultimately, it seems not to matter how rigorous and vigilant the media is in detecting and ousting those who lie through their photography and reporting. The damage is done -- public faith, once again, is lost.