#2: Ethics in Photojournalism

Like I said in my last post, talking abstractly about ethics, editing, and photography can be very confusing so I will use this post to show you real examples of photoediting that corrupts the integrity of the photo.


In it, a British soldier seems to be shouting or directing migrant movements.

This shot was featured on the front page of the LA Times on March 31, 2003.

The photo above depicts a British soldier shouting and directing the actions of migrants. To a viewer, it seems like the soldier is perhaps commanding the man and child to stop moving and sit down. In fact, this photo is two separate photos pieced together to create this narrative and isn’t an precise event that physically occurred.

When you view how the photos were pieced together, the appearance of threatening behavior or tension in the crowd diminishes. In addition, in “Original Photo 1” we can see a tank and evidence that the British military controls the area. Although the edited photo makes for a very compelling news cover, it tarnishes the trusting relationship between the viewer and the journalist. The editing is obviously intentional, with the purpose of creating a dynamic image, and thought out. However, in an attempt to understand the photographer’s thought process, we have to understand the circumstances of his environment, and his personal intentions of creating this image.

In an interview, the photographer, Brian Walski, states, “We were in Iraq at that point for six days. We were sleeping in our car. It was the most intense kind of–we didn’t have any place to stay. There was no safe haven of any kind where you could kind of relax and get a good night’s sleep. It was constant tension.”

Although he and his co-workers discuss how the harsh conditions changes their mindsets, Walski does not make any excuses for his actions saying, “When I put the pictures together, I knew what I was doing. It looked good. It looked better than what I had, and I said ‘wow.’ Things happened so fast… . I said, ‘that looks good.’ I worked it and sent it.” Brian Walski was fired and his reputation destroyed. He now works as a private photographer in Denver, Colorado.


Still, this brings up some issues that dig deeper into the the question of truth within a photo, truth within a story, and in the end asks whether the main pressures on the photographer come from the changing landscape of news journalism as an industry. Although the content of the photo in question was warped, some reporters believe that Walski was used as a scapegoat to distract from the distortions that exist in all facets of news media. The fact that has become more and more apparent is that news relies on sensationalism because news, in the end, is a business and needs to sell advertising spots to stay alive. For instance, why is this photographer fired when news television shows distort the facts daily and on a much larger scale? In fact, the use of emotion to sell news is not a phenomenon and was introduced by Joseph Pulitzer in the 19th century with blaring headlines, large pictures and graphics, and a new narrative story telling. The newest tool of entertainment news is the use of Clickbait headlines that falsely advertise what the article content is about. A tool of tabloids, clickbait strategy has moved into the mainstream news journalism and so raises the question that if headlines are allowed to be false, why is there such outrage when photos, which are basically the visual headlines of articles, are manipulated?


Below follows some more examples of editing in news journalism photography with short explanations.



Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 2.34.32 PM a,bScreen Shot 2015-08-23 at 2.45.54 PM

(a) OJ Simson’s mug shot was famously darkened by Time magazine to create a very dramatic change in skin tone. Allegations of the use of racist assumptions aside, how many time have you used a filter on a photo to make it more dramatic? This, I believe is a malicious use of editing to sell magazines.

(b) The Economist edited the photo of President Obama with BP officials to fit their headlining story about Obama’s plan to address the oil spill. They cut and pasted Obama’s profile and moved it to the left to isolate and juxtapose the stressed figure against the silhouette of the oil drills. Although this is a very active and deliberate edit, how much does it change the message of the story, the truth, the meaning of the situation? Not only is it a very compelling cover photo, but how much information has been changed? Actually, if you remember that time period, a lot of articles were about blaming BP for the disaster and their lack of response. The undoctored photo shows BP officials with the President, and so their absence in the published version is very important. Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 2.51.18 PMc, d iHrwV6O2_n98


(c) The photo on the left was circulated by a French photo agency and published by many American news sources such as the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times in June 2008. The agency pulled the photo saying it was a handout image by the Iran national guard and that they didn’t know it was doctored. The photo posted by the Iran national guard is the one on the right. At some point, the photo was doctored so that the missiles were more impressive in number and looked to be shooting farther than they apparently were.

(d) This is a pretty famous and early example of doctoring photos. National Geographic printed this cover in 1982, editing a horizontal photo in which the pyramids and the subjects were spread out much further from eachother into a condensed vertical photo.


Lastly, this well known photo of Abraham Lincoln on the left, is actually a clipped photo of Lincoln’s head (from a picture in which he’s sitting down) on town of John Calhoun’s body. This shows that photoshop was never necessary to editing for dramatic effect.


These are some very well know examples of doctored photos. There are many, many more out there. Like I said in the previous post, about 20% of the FINALISTS in the World Press Photo competition were found to be doctored or over-edited. Those included in this post are just the well-known and obvious transgressions.







  1. Hi Tian! I’ve enjoyed reading through your posts and looking at the examples of manipulating photos. This is something I didn’t really know that much before, but it definitely seems like it is important for people to remember that pretty much anything in the media has probably been skewed at least slightly somehow. It is interesting that people have been manipulating photos even before Photoshop! Do you think photojournalists have been getting more carried away with it in recent years, or does it just seem like more because we are hearing more about it? I also noticed in your last post that you wrote about how hard it is to determine how far is too far. Have you found out any more about what is generally accepted (or not) in terms of editing? Do you have personal opinions about how much photojournalists should be able to manipulate their photos? I certainly would have to look into it a lot more before I could figure out what I would consider ethically sound, and even then it definitely would be a hard line to draw!

  2. I feel that often, people look to media to define what reality is and what their conception of the outside world should be. While I understand that often images are doctored to tell a better story, it’s hard for me to find a reason that would justify some of the alterations you showed here, even the one of Obama and the BP officials. To me, it seems that showing him without the BP officials, the country must imagine him standing alone against BP as opposed to working with them. I think another question that is worth asking is whether the role of photojournalists is really one of more passive documentation. We tend to envision a sort of neutral ideal press even though that is rarely the case.

  3. I think your research topic is really fascinating. It really makes you question what you see. I think the reason over editing bothers us so much in photographs rather than other media forms is that the photographic form is assumed to be the most realistic of all artistic media. Unlike a painting, when we see a photograph we expect it to tell the truth. Perhaps that is why photographers have more to lose when they editorialize than other journalists do. We put such intense trust in them to capture moments as they happen and when they let us down, we react with the same intensity.