The Landscape You See Is Not What You Get

For students of the visual media, Eadweard Muybridge is a well-known figure. His photographs, taken for racing aficionado and governor of California Leland Stanford, proved that all four hooves of a galloping horse are briefly but simultaneously off the ground. Muybridge's ground-breaking work was directly linked to the study of locomotion and later to the development of motion pictures. Muybridge's 1860s landscape photographs of Yosemite and Guatemala are impressive.

But our appreciation of this photographic pioneer was recently shattered when we read Rebecca Solnit's River of Shadows, in which she disclosed that each of these Muybridge landscape images were composites, with two photographs combined-one of the landscape and the other of the clouds. Muybridge added the clouds because of the chemical idiosyncrasies of wet-plate photography. Solnit explains: "the chemistry of wet-plate photography perceived yellows as far darker than they are and blues as far lighter. The sky in most nineteenth-century photography is pale and featureless, because to expose for the land was to overexpose for the sky."1 Muybridge attempted to capture and preserve the original splendor of the scenes and therefore resorted to his composite technique.

So, the question is, was this early photographer simply trying to use the new technology to faithfully capture the scene in front of him or was he guilty of deceit?

In her account of Muybridge's pioneering work, Solnit states:

What truth meant in photography was not yet settled-retouching was almost a universal practice, and some of the more respected photographers made composite images. No one minded clouds that had been added later. Was the white sky that came from technical limitations truer than a sky full of realistic-looking clouds that just happened to be from another time and place? The clouds were, in a way, the lie that tells the truth, the manipulation that made Muybridge's photographs look more convincing and more "artistic," as art was then imagined.2

Manipulating the War

On Sunday, August 6, 2006, almost 150 years after Muybridge's landscapes, free-lance photographer Adnan Hajj, working for the Reuters News Agency, took pictures of the aftermath of an Israeli air strike in Beirut. Bryan Denham dealt with this very case and discussed significant issues of perception and manipulation in the Fall 2006 issue of Media Ethics. We want to return to the issues raised by this incident in order to focus on the process of unobserved renegotiation currently taking place between media producers and consumers.

Renツe Montagne of National Public Radio's Morning Edition interviewed Reuters Photo Editor Garry Hershorn regarding the Beirut incident:

MONTAGNE: [Hershorn] says, after the Beirut photo was spotted, the news agency went back and discovered a second altered photo by the same photographer.

Mr. HERSHORN: .It was a picture of an Israeli jet releasing flares. And the picture, as it appeared on our wire, had three flares, but in the original there was one.

MONTAGNE: You know, looking at it, and I'm looking at it right now-the darkness is one thing, but it looks like the cloud has been repeated five times. It's almost amateurish.

Mr. HERSHORN: Yes. I'll be honest with you, this one slipped through the system. It just came in, a photo editor looked at it, coded it, and sent it to our clients.

MONTAGNE: Did it enter into Reuters' thinking that this is, of course, a war with feelings running high on both sides, and that in this case, also in both photographs, the attack was made to look worse?

Mr. HERSHORN: Certainly. I personally look at a lot of Adnan Hajj's pictures.I believe that he was trying to take a picture and make it better, rather than trying to take a picture and make a statement.

MONTAGNE: Where do you draw the line between enhancing to make a nicer picture and manipulating?

Mr. HERSHORN: Well, there are, within the business of photojournalism, some very accepted practices. If you take a picture and somebody's skin tone is purple by mistake, it's very common for a photographer to bring the skin tone back to a proper skin tone color.

A photographer is never allowed to change content. You can't add information, you can't take away things.3

Defending himself, Mr. Hajj denied doctoring the content of the images. According to the BBC, Hajj said "he.had tried to clean dust off the first image, a shot of buildings in a suburb of Beirut, on which Reuters found smoke plumes had been darkened and expanded using computer software."4

There are hundred of other examples that demonstrate the manipulation of information, that expose ethical dimensions in the processing of information. Real and unreal, authentic and inauthentic, genuine and fake, actual and virtual, fixed and unfixed, edited and unedited-the pairings are almost infinite and the complexities extraordinary.

Perhaps contemporary audiences have learned to question the facsimilic quality of photographs, but there remains an intrinsic propensity to mentally process photographs without taking manipulation for granted because of the "isomorphic assumption" that the camera replicates that which is placed before the "camera's eye."

Photography as an Unbiased Witness

Upon entering the museum of photography and film archive at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, the visitor is given the following warning:

Our faith in photographs is much stronger than the facts warrant. The depths of this belief in photography as an unbiased witness, a transparent window to the world, is what gives the medium its power. Bestowed with the mantle of truth, photographs are used to shape our opinions and our memories. This is possible only because of our unquestioning acceptance of the medium as an unmediated reflection of the world. Why do we think all photographs are true except for the bad pictures of ourselves? Only when the illusion of the photograph is broken can the subject of photography be discussed. Photographs are not windows on the world but translations of it. The photographer's motives, the camera's lens, and the photographic materials interpret whatever is in front of the camera. .

Then there is the Case of Katie Couric. CBS, while searching for the successor to Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather finally decided upon Katie Couric. A campaign was started to shift her person and image from the morning news to the evening news. In their publicizing zeal CBS produced a slimmer thinner Katie in their September 2006 issue of the house magazine Watch. commented:

They say that appearing on television adds ten pounds. And that may be. But CBS has discovered an even better theorem-appearing in the house magazine drops at least 15.Photoshopping a picture of Couric to give her thinner arms, neck and waist..The blog TVNewser is credited with catching the ruse and there has been a predictable ramping up of outrage from the critics. Couric, as is her style, came up with a nifty quip, saying she preferred the first version because "there was more of me to love."

But the real question isn't, can we trust CBS? It is, in a day when nearly anyone with a laptop can doctor photos, can we trust our own eyes? Tweaking images is so easy, and the results so convincing, that our only defense is the ethics of the organizations which are publishing them.

Trust and the Medium

When we speak directly face-to-face, the process of appraising genuineness is a matter of checking input-the voice, the gesture, involuntary twitches, guessing the nature of motive and intent.

The intervention of a medium-virtually any medium-complicates the process. The medium requires the two-fold task of judging not only the ambiguous personal other, but the medium itself. We make ethical assumptions about the other based in part on our understanding and trust of the intervening variable-the medium. A set of variables based upon the technical characteristics that define the medium are introduced. Our expectations are colored by our understanding of the medium in question. Each medium is different. Print, audio recording, the photograph, the motion picture, television-all have recognizable characteristics that define them. But one major technological assumption pervades. Is the medium analogic or digital? An analogical medium brings with it an assumption of replication. A digital medium brings with it an assumption of potential alteration or manipulation of the variables that define it, thereby modifying what is communicated. Implicit in our processing expectations is the matter of trust.

Of course, there is a difference between technology and the institutionalizing of the technology, between the defining characteristics of the medium and those who use or produce content using the medium. While the concept and execution of the press has a moral and accountability dimension to it, no technology has an intrinsic moral character. It is not judged or evaluated from an editorial or critical standard, but generally by a standard of accuracy or fidelity and precision. The matter of ethics is introduced by the human factor not the technological nature of the medium.

The Assumptions of Trust

Communication is always at least two-sided-that is, a signal or data has to be both produced and consumed. Ethics are inherent in dissemination while critical ability and skill are part of processing and consuming data. The civic responsibility of the citizen is a moral one, but the producers' accountability is an ethical one. The bargain between producer and consumer is based upon several perceptual assumptions:

1)The implicit belief that nothing in the original signal has been altered. To some extent, this position is theoretically impossible. As soon as a medium becomes part of the connection between two parties, some degree of distortion, alteration, modification, and augmentation occurs. Thus a 35 mm photograph requires development. Development time results in perceptually different prints although, from one perspective, the content has not been tampered with. The matter is no longer a binary "yes" or "no," but a matter of degree. Is the essence of the photograph what the camera saw-or the resulting construction? When the "photograph" is a digital magnetic recording, is there an ethical problem when we lighten or darken, or crop, or straighten out the image? When we construct and combine images and sounds and the result is an image or sound not possible to have been seen through the camera lens or recorded with a microphone, when the process of change is not discernible, the ethical imperative increases in importance.

2)The assumption that alteration is part of the editorial and/or creative process. It is assumed that a feature motion picture has been edited or constructed and that the times and spaces shown have been manipulated. The concept of montage is a perfect example of manipulation as a part of the creative whole. Faithfulness to the original input is irrelevant.

3)The position of permeating doubt. Under many, if not most, circumstances, there may not be any obvious signs of manipulation, but simultaneously we may be aware that most mediated data is now digitalized and it is to be assumed that all information is potentially altered or alterable. In that case the alternatives are to doubt and question everything or simply to suspend that sense of doubt.

The assumptions of alteration and manipulation, for better or for worse, artistically or editorially, are important in the processing of information and require an additional critical parameter-that of motive. Why has the change taken place? When does the action violate moral responsibility?

Guiding the Responsible

Numerous professional codes and guidelines have raised issues of responsibility on the production side of the communication equation. The National Press Photographers Association [NPPA] Code of Ethics, based upon the professionalism of photojournalists, begins:

[T]he practice of photojournalism, both as science and art, is worthy of the very best thought and effort of those who enter into it as a profession....It is the individual responsibility of every photojournalist at all times to strive for pictures that report truthfully, honestly and objectively. As journalists, we believe that credibility is our greatest asset. In documentary photojournalism, it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way (electronically or in the darkroom) that deceives the public.

In its code of ethics, revised in 2004, the NPPA included the following in its standards of daily work: "Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects."5

According to the Society of Professional Journalists' [SPJ] Code of Ethics, journalists should: "Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations."6

The Society for News Design, an organization of visual journalists, adopted a new code of ethics on August 30, 2006 calling for accuracy in that:

Accuracy is the indispensable value in journalism and must not be compromised. We must deliver error-free content, across all our media platforms. We must ensure that our content is a verifiable representation of the news and of our subjects. We promise never intentionally to mislead those who depend upon us for public service. We will correct errors promptly and prominently. We must be as accurate with our colleagues as we are with our audiences.7

The Poynter Institute's Visual Journalism Group Leader Kenny Irby offers provocative insights into diverse industry guidelines including the nicely-articulated policy of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:

The introduction of electronic photo editing technology to the Herald-Tribune brings with it concerns about the use of the image manipulation capabilities of the tools in our daily production. Technology gives us the ability to easily alter the content or create new photographs that could deceive the reader and ultimately damage the credibility of the Herald-Tribune. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE POLICY OF THE HERALD-TRIBUNE THAT CONTENT ALTERATION OF PHOTOGRAPHS IS UNACCEPTABLE USING PAST OR PRESENT TECHNOLOGY.

If significant reason exists to challenge this policy it will be addressed in the following manner:

No discussion needed:

Dodging or burning of areas in the photograph that do not change the content, for instance, lightening or darkening areas of the photograph to make them reproducible in the newspaper.

Correction of technical defects in a photo, for instance, repairing line hits in a photo or erasing line noise.

However, discussion is required:

To use the electronic image manipulation capabilities to create an illustration using photographic elements. It should be noted that this protocol does not preclude the use of the technology to create illustrations using the particular advantages of the tools, but does require that the resulting illustration not closely resemble a real life scene and requires that the resulting illustration be labeled as to its creative elements.8

The Council of Science Editors [CSE] editorial policies promoting integrity in scientific publishing has produced a white paper on "Promoting Integrity in Scientific Journal Publication" replete with ways of identifying research misconduct and guidelines for action associated with "digital images." Its Guidelines for Handling Image Data state:

No specific feature within an image may be enhanced, obscured, moved, removed, or introduced.

Adjustments of brightness, contrast, or color balance are acceptable if they are applied to the whole image and as long as they do not obscure, eliminate, or misrepresent any information present in the original.

The grouping of images from different parts of the same gel, or from different gels, fields, or exposures must be made explicit by the arrangement of the figure (e.g., dividing lines) and in the text of the figure legend.

If the original data cannot be produced by an author when asked to provide it, the acceptance of the manuscript may be revoked.

These comprehensive guidelines were developed in 2002 and are used by the journals published by The Rockefeller University Press. We hope that other journals will consider using them.

The guidelines suggest enforcement polices which provide for the examination of image files:

In an electronic workflow, a production editor will have to examine each figure file for compliance with journal requirements such as file type, resolution, and image size. At the same time, the production editor can do a "forensic" analysis of the images in a figure file. For grayscale images, adjustments to brightness and contrast using the basic "Brightness/Contrast" slide bars in Photoshop can reveal inconsistencies in the pattern of background pixelation that are clues to manipulation. For color images, more sophisticated adjustments to contrast using the "Levels" slides may be necessary to reveal inconsistencies.

The document goes on to define misconduct: "The Rockefeller University Press has defined 2 types of digital image-related misconduct: inappropriate manipulation and fraudulent manipulation. Inappropriate manipulation refers to an adjustment to the image data that violates guidelines but does not affect the interpretation of the data."9

The Consumer Producer

While these issues remain thorny for professional photojournalists, the rise of the citizen journalist elevates this discussion to a new level. The consumer is transformed into producer and is increasingly recruited by news organizations. Reuters and Yahoo! introduced an initiative in December 2006, investing $7 million in Pluck, a company that distributes content from blogs to newspapers and other traditional media outlets. It has backed experimental undertakings including, to expand reporting that combines the work of professional journalists and online consumers. Contributions from the public may take the form of material that runs with and enhances the main story in an established news outlet. The cell phone-carrying citizen is a potential photojournalist. The citizen journalist supplies content for blogs and Web sites. Unedited citizen journalism suggests quite a distinct "contractual" relationship between producer and consumer. However, the hybrid professional/citizen journalist outlet in which the work of professional journalists is presented alongside contributions of citizens suggests perhaps a more troubling blurring, one fraught with ethical problems, in the digital era.

The Dilemma of Doubt

So what is the conclusion? Is there a solution to the dilemma of doubt? It is clear that an ethical responsibility of truth and accuracy rests with those who produce and edit the information needed in order for an individual to exist in a complex global society. It also becomes self-evident that the citizen has a moral responsibility to learn how to evaluate the data in a convergent media environment. The critical mindset, the ability to navigate information, becomes an absolute necessity and suggests media literacy be elevated to the status of a major educational discipline. While professional codes focus on the obligations of the producer, the move to digital forms makes this a time when the consumer's responsibility should be brought into sharp focus.


1 Rebecca Solnit (2003). River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. NY: Viking Press. p. 47.

2 Ibid., p. 48.

3 Renツe Montagne. "Reuters Retracts Altered Beirut Photo," Morning Edition, National Public Radio Archive,, August 8, 2006.

4 "Reuters drops Beirut Photographer," BBC News, middle_east/5254838.stm, August 8, 2006.

5 National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics,, August, 2006.

6 Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, ethicscode.asp

7 Society for News Design Code of Ethics, organization_ethics.html, August 30, 2006.

8 Kenny Irby, "Sarasota Herald-Tribune Photo Manipulation Policy," Poynter Online, content_view.asp?id=47384, Sept. 25, 2003.

9 Council of Science Editors,"Promoting Integrity in Scientific Journal Publication," http://www.councilscience

Susan Drucker is Professor of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Her E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Gary Gumpert is Professor Emeritus, Queens College of the City University of New York. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2007 (18:2), pp.11,30-33.