Call Me Stodgy, I Guess

The Associated Press recently severed their relationship with a photographer who altered an image out of Syria. It was found that Narcico Contreras took out a video camera from the back of an image he transmitted in September. He also was a co-winner of the Pulitzer last year for images from Syria.

From the AP story:

“I took the wrong decision when I removed the camera … I feel ashamed about that,” he said. “You can go through my archives and you can find that this is a single case that happened probably at one very stressed moment, at one very difficult situation, but yeah, it happened to me, so I have to assume the consequences.”

Happy to see he is owning his mistake.

That said, over at Gawker, Adam Weinstein has decided to take the Associated Press to task over his dismissal. He feels that digitally manipulating an image should be accepted because, well … I’m struggling to parse his piece, but I think he says that taking out another journalist’s camera is akin to cleaning up continuity errors in movies …?

There are a few other segments I’m really bothered by.

Is the original image any less representative of the Syrian civil war? It’s neither more or less true, but it contains additional facts. It tells us that the rebel is not alone. It’s messy. And that offends a certain, stodgy type of editor.

If by “a certain, stodgy type of editor” he means one who believes in accuracy, then that’s probably most of us who ever sat at a desk.

Consider this: If that videocamera had been a few inches to the left, Contreras could have cropped it out of his shot, and no one would have objected. Cropping and narrowing the lens’s frame of reference are accepted practices, even though they often omit important context.

The difference is that the cropped image still represents what was actually there – just not all of it. The manipulated image now represents what was not actually there. It’s a fabrication, a fictional interpretation.

If the presence of a colleague’s camera didn’t change the news value of the shot, why did Contreras feel the need to ‘shop it out? He reasoned, quite correctly, that news outlets wouldn’t pick up the image with the camera in it. But, again, if that corner of the pic was incidental to its news importance, why wouldn’t editors buy it?

This is total conjecture on Weinstein’s part – there is no evidence cited that indicates any editor would not have picked up and transmitted the original, authentic, un-manipulated image. None. The wires and news publications are full of images that have other journalists in them. Personally, I’ve been in the news business in some way, shape or form for a quarter of a century – not once would the inclusion of another journalist have had an impact on my decision to run or not run an image.

The only reason people come to news organizations is because they trust them – as soon as you start altering reality, that trust is broken. It is, has been and forever should be a zero tolerance policy – you lie, you’re out of work.

(Thanks to colleague Prof. Kristen Smith for the link.)

Mark E. Johnson

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