PHOTOJOURNALISM IN CRISIS? (The Bloggers Strike!)

In my book (BLOGWARS, forthcoming, OXFORD, 2007) I try to make the point that it is time to move on from the confrontational blogger-vs-MSM bipolarity of the earlier days of blogging. The so-callled MSM needs bloggers and is, in fact, “blogging up.” Bloggers are becoming a normal part of the spectrum of media. But we still have brushfire battles, and perhaps they are the “birth pains” of a new media alignment. I wrote the article below for E&P–predictably I got some hate mail from journalists saying I was too pro-blogger, and from some bloggers saying I was a lackey of the MSM…or Hezbollah! Oh, well, if you support a marketplace of ideas you should not expect it to be tidy and nice. That said, as links below show, most bloggers who cited the piece understood I was trying to be fair to all parties…

PHOTOJOURNALISM IN CRISIS

By David D. Perlmutter, Editorandpublisher.com, August 17, 2006

(August 17, 2006) — The Israeli-Hezbollah war has left many dead bodies, ruined towns, and wobbling politicians in its wake, but the media historian of the future may also count as one more victim the profession of photojournalism. In twenty years of researching and teaching about the art and trade and doing photo-documentary work, I have never witnessed or heard of such a wave of attacks on the people who take news pictures and on the basic premise that nonfiction news photo- and videography is possible.

I’m not sure, however, if the craft I love is being murdered, committing suicide, or both.

Perhaps it would be more reassuring if the enemy at the gates was a familiar one—politicians, or maybe radio talk show hosts. But the photojournalist standing on the crumbling ramparts of her once proud citadel now sees the vandal army charging for the sack led by “zombietime,” “The Jawa Report,” “Powerline,” “Little Green Footballs,” “confederateyankee,” and many others.

In each case, these bloggers have engaged in the kind of probing, contextual, fact-based (if occasionally speculative) media criticism I have always asked of my students. And the results have been devastating: news photos and video shown to be miscaptioned, radically altered, or staged (and worse, re-staged) for the camera. Surely “green helmet guy,” “double smoke,” “the missiles that were actually flares,” “[THE WOMAN WITH 3 BOMBED HOUSES,” “the wedding mannequin from nowhere,” the “magical burning Koran,” the “little girl who actually fell off a swing” and “keep filming!” will now enter the pantheon of shame of photojournalism.

A few photo-illusions are probably due to the lust for the most sensational or striking-looking image—that is, more aesthetic bias than political prejudice. Also, many photographers know that war victims are money shots and some will break the rules of the profession to cash in. But true as well is that local stringers and visiting anchors alike seem to have succumbed either to lens-enabled Stockholm syndrome or accepted being the uncredited Hezbollah staff photographer so as to be able to file stories and images in militia-controlled areas.

It does not help that certain news organizations have acted like government officials or corporate officers trying to squash a scandal. The visual historian in me revolts when an ABC producer informs me that Reuters “deleted all 920 images” by the stringer who produced the “Beirut double smoke” image and is “less than willing to talk about it.” Can you say “18-minute gap,” anyone?

There is one great irony here. From a historical perspective, this is the golden age of photojournalistic ethics. In previous eras wild retouching, rearranging, cutting of images and even staging and restaging of events for the camera were commonly accepted in the trade. As someone who has written a history of images of war, I can testify there is more honesty in war photography today than ever in the past in any medium or any war–but there is, of course, much more scrutiny as well.

The main point is that we are now at a social, political and technological crossroads for media—amateur, industrial, and all points and persons in between. First, we live in Photoshop-CGI culture. People are accustomed to watching the amazing special effects of modern movies, where it seems any scene that can be imagined can be pixilated into appearing photorealistic. On our desktop, many of us are photoshopping our lives, manipulating family photos with ease.
In addition, in a digital-Internet-satellite age, any image on the Web can be altered by anyone into any new image and there is no “original,” as in a negative, to prove which was first. The icons are sacred no longer. Finally, there are the bloggers: the visual or word journalist is not only overseen by a familiar hierarchy of editors or producers but by many independents who will scan, query, trade observations, and blast what they think is an error or manipulation to the entire world.

News picture-making media organizations have two paths of possible response to this unnerving new situation. First, they can stonewall, deny, delete, dismiss, counter-slur, or ignore the problem. To some extent, this is what is happening now and, ethical consideration aside, such a strategy is the practical equivalent of taking extra photos of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The second, much more painful option, is to implement your ideals, the ones we still teach in journalism school. Admit mistakes right away. Correct them with as much fanfare and surface area as you devoted to the original image. Create task forces and investigating panels. Don’t delete archives but publish them along with detailed descriptions of what went wrong. Attend to your critics and diversify the sources of imagery, or better yet be brave enough to refuse to show any images of scenes in which you are being told what to show. I would even love to see special inserts or mini-documentaries on how to spot photo bias or photo fakery—in other words, be as transparent, unarrogant, and responsive as you expect those you cover to be.

The stakes are high. Democracy is based on the premise that it is acceptable for people to believe that some politicians or news media are lying to them; democracy collapses when the public believes that everybody in government and the press is lying to them.

And what of future victims of war? Will the public deny them their sorrows because we will dismiss all smoking rubble and dead children as mere digital propaganda?

Photojournalism must live, but not if its practitioners and owners are determined to jump into the abyss.

—————————————————

from HOTAIR BLOG: “Update: David Perlmutter’s essay on “photojournalism in crisis” is, justifiably, being linked far and wide. Let’s make it a little further and wider.” Indeed, and in the bloglands that’s not always a good thing!

The orginal essay was cited by:

BLUE CRAB REPORT

DEMOCRACY PROJECT

BIG PICTURE

LITTLE GREEN FOOTBALLS

ECLECTCHAP

JAWA REPORT

TIFFIN BOX

TRANSTERRESTRIAL

POWERLINE

HOTAIR

NON IMPRIMATUR

PAJAMAS MEDIA

DIGG.COM

NEWSBUSTERS

RANTBUG

PHOTOGRAPHY BLOG

SPINSPY

BENE DICTION BLOG

UGLY AMERICAN

SCRIBBLING MONK

More….

PHOTOSHOPNEWS

CONSERVATIVELIFE FORUM

MEMEORANDOM

LIBERALVALUESBLOG

TAILRANK

JIM-ROSE

DISCERNINGTEXAN

OWNERS MANUAL

OLD WAR DOGS

NCPPAONLINE

WESTERNSTANDARD

SCRUTINATOR

AJACKSONIAN

RESEARCH CLINIC

SMALL DEAD ANIMALS

PROUD TO BE A CANADIAN

PHOTOSHOPNEWS

DANEgerus

SMALL WARS JOURNAL

THE REALUGLYAMERICAN

SNOOKERSWAMP

AMERICAN THINKER

—————————————-

RESEARCH NOTE:

There are two terrific books on the subject of photo-manipulation. The second is written by a former CIA photoexpert. Very enjoyable reads as well.

Jaubert, Alain. 1989[1986]. Making People Disappear: An Amazing Chronicle of Photographic Deception. Washinggton: Pergamon-Brassey’s.

Brugioni, Dino A. 1999. Photo fakery: The history and techniques of photographic deception and manipulation. Dulles, VA: Brassey’s.

I also talk about “image biases” in two of my books:

David D. Perlmutter. Photojournalism and Foreign Policy: Framing Icons of Outrage in International Crises. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.

David D. Perlmutter. Visions of War: Picturing Warfare from the Stone Age to the Cyberage. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

Originally posted August 20, 2006 at PolicyByBlog

Comments

  1. Original Reader Comments (15)

    In this age of “fauxtography” we are all too accustomed to the damage one can do with Adobe Photoshop and an avid imagination. In the months following 9/11 many received emails of images with tourists taking “last minute” shots of the twin towers as they were hit by planes or collapsed and this was just the beginning. There are an increasing number of accepted fake photographs that capture our imagination each day. One has to ask that if this is such a common element of our day to day interactions with photography, is it any surprise that casually altering pictures has translated into photojournalism as well? It is sad to see trained journalists stooping to such lows just to make that extra buck or get a cover shot. I am proud of those in the field that continue to succeed based on hard work, talent and merit.
    September 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Smith

    As technology continues to grow and expand, it will only get easier for films and photography to be altered and manipulated. As the world asks for more, the photographer needs to capture that shocking image to please the consumer and make the cover shot. They may have to go to extreme lengths to obtain that goal. Also, the more shocking the faster the word seems to spread, and with the web today, spreading the word is just a click of the mouse. As true photographers, you need to educate the public on photo manipulation. Changing photos can be very damaging to the world. Just look at the cover of the magazines in the grocery store aisles. Small girls are growing up anorexic because they want to look like one of the stars on the cover, which is photo manipulation at its best.
    September 13, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersd

    Photojournalism is undergoing a severe crisis. No doubt about that. But I don’t think the situation is that bad. As you say in your article, people are used to the media lying to them. We haven’t reached the point where we can generalize and say that all war photos are either fake or staged. I agree that in order to gain the public’s trust back, photojournalists must recognize their errors and act as ethically as possible. They probably won’t get the million dollar shot nor make the front page of their paper, but the consequences in the long run are worth more than anything else.
    September 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Grass

    Reading about the current fauxtography debate makes me wonder if there’s actually been a sudden increase in incidents (indicating that journalists have lost their way) or if we’re actually looking at about the same number of faux-journalists (both visual and print), but thanks to technology, we can more easily identify the fakes. My gut and my 15 years in the business tell me it is likely the latter.
    Before the Internet, journalists’ words & pictures would come & go with the news cycle. Unless you were a packrat who subscribed to & saved multiple news sources, it took a lot more effort to compare, contrast and look for liars. Now Internet search engines let us quickly compare news stories present & past. The Internet also allows cyber-sleuths to check multiple sources. You can browse from Time to Newsweek to U.S. News & World Report. If something looks fishy, you can look back at last month’s or last year’s edition with the click of a mouse.
    In cyberspace, this sleuthing can also be done as a community. If you see something that looks fishy, you can let your friends (or fellow bloggers) know and they can join in the hunt for the truth too.
    I believe scrutiny like this helps weed out and expose the minority of fakers more quickly. It also holds the much larger majority of honest journalists more accountable to the principles of fairness and accuracy. No longer is someone watching– everyone’s watching and ultimately I believe journalism will be the better for it.
    September 16, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBOWOT

    As a writer, I love reading the news. But, over the past few years I have found that just reading the news doesn�t always satisfy my needs, I also want to see the news. A story doesn�t seem complete without a picture and those stories that do have pictures seem to catch my attention and draw me in. It is easier to believe what you can see and if a picture is on the cover of a popular newspaper or magazine that is a sure sign that the picture is real. Isn�t it? It seems to me that people, like me, who are looking for the best and most dramatic pictures are the ones encouraging photojournalists to capture these picture�no matter the cost. Even if it means faking it. We can�t just blame the photographer. We, the readers of the news, are the ones that buy the paper, surf the web, and pass along the greatest pictures�I mean stories to our friends. I think if there is going to be a change in the way photojournalists portray the news there is going to have to be a change in the expectations of those of us who read the news. We are going to have to be satisfied with the unaltered pictures even if they are not as graphic or dramatic. I think that the direction that photojournalism is moving is going to be determined more by the readers than by journalists.
    September 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLynda

    While not defending photographer Adnan Hajj for the Beirut “double smoke” picture, I can’t help but wonder whether his manipulation was a desperate cry for help, as if to say: “Hey, pay more attention to our war, please!…It’s TWICE as bad as you think it is!”

    Hajj’s manipulation was completely wrong–no two ways about it–but I don’t think it was motivated out of a professional greed (landing a coveted magazine cover). Instead, I think he exaggerated an already terrible situation in an attempt to spark international outrage that mirrored his particular stance on the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict.

    In the process, however, he completely distracted focus from the very war he felt compelled to over-emphasize.

    I don’t think Hajj’s violation will damage the credibility of the profession as a whole. Perhaps, though, this incident can serve as a wake-up call, letting journalists and readers alike know that there’s usually more than meets the eye even when it comes to “news” images.
    September 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Watts

    The idea of full disclosure is an interesting one. With print publications, generally you have one shot with a picture to convey the message. Why not photoshop and say you photoshopped. Say this picture was staged. If it’s the best way to paint a depiction of the story, what’s the issue? The only thing standing in the way would be old fashioned journalism ethics that would never, ever, ever, allow anything to be fabricated.

    Why are we so married to the old ways of doing things? There are more than two ways of attacking this problem. It seems if journalists are going to be caught photoshopping, go ahead and do it, if it’s the best way to convey the message. Put the originals on the web, provide a link in the print edition, say this picture was photoshopped and give the bloggers something else to complain about.
    September 17, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

    While I agree with the necessity of “full photographic disclosure,” I’m a little perturbed that the greater media community (from the MSM to bloggers) needs to have this suggested to them. This sort of belongs somewhere between “cite your sources” and “consult a dictionary” in the canon of foundational journalism.
    As to the concluding premise that “democracy works when… democracy falis when…,” I think a lot of what’s going on right now falls into a third category, being “democracy fails when the populace falls into a number of hostile camps, each of which accepting only the news and images which support their beliefs about the wold, and wholly rejecting those that do not.” There seem to be large numbers of people who, in their desire for a certain outcome, make themselves immune to contradictory information, regardless of a preponderance of sources, or anything else.
    Regarding the above post from David Watts, I doubt that the photographers who manipulated their images were making a “cry for help,” but I do believe that there is an overall sense of desperation and frustration, because much of what the Western world sees of war zones is sanitized in a number of senses. Robert Fisk of the Observer (UK) put forth that US conservatives’ complaints that the media “isn’t giving an accurate depiction of how things are going in Iraq” were at least half right–according to Fisk, things are much, much worse. He bases this statement on the beavior of many Western journalists of working from their hotel rooms, and gathering info mainly (by telephone) from official U.S./ally PR outlets. So you get the body counts, the wounded report, and so on, but that’s more or less it. Based on this limited scope, one can pretty much daydream any reality one wishes, regarding how things are actually going.
    Back to the discussion at hand, the furor over manipulated photos, it’s worth noting that people usually find a way to use the discoveries to reinforce what they believe anyway. “Green Helmet Guy” is extrapolated into “Nothing’s happening to Lebanon that a weekend of litter-patrol won’t repair.”
    September 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDirk Diggler

    Just because blogs (allegedly) uncover more and more cases of fauxtography, that doesn’t necessarily mean that photojournalism is riddled with and suffering from dishonesty. To start with, let’s define fauxtography as the deliberate attempt to shoot people, things and places in a way inconsistent with reality. Is this really a new phenomenon? It is not.

    And yet, technology has increased the possibility of faking. It has become easier and more tempting, probably. However, technology has also increased the possibility of debunking fakes, e.g. through ‘blogospherical’ coverage. But will that prevent us from fauxtography? No, but it will help to guide people through the sometimes stormy waters of photojournalism. Its general perception will change, skepticism might grow. In the long run, it might compel the people behind the scenes to rethink their professional ethics.
    September 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJack Bauer

    Is it possible that photojournalism is “in crisis” only to the same degree that any other activity related to public communication or private ethics is “in crisis” at any moment of any day? Merriam-Webster defines “crisis” as: “a decisive or critical moment.” In a world where every moment finds itself viewed, recorded, documented, shared, analyzed, instant-replayed, judged, regulated, or gossiped about, what moment is NOT decisive or critical?

    Photojournalism reflects new technology (photography) being applied in an evolutionary manner to an existing activity called “Journalism.” Blogging, with its incredible information-gathering and dissemination capabilities, can also be viewed as new technology being applied in an evolutionary manner to journalism.

    Perlmutter says: “As someone who has written a history of images of war, I can testify there is more honesty in war photography today than ever. . .” So where is the crisis?

    Is this a decisive or critical moment in history because photojournalists, and those who publish news photos, are being asked simply for honesty and transparency?

    If so, then perhaps it is time for photojournalists to take a hard look at their personal ethics and adhere to a higher standard that meets society’s need, and frees bloggers from feeling compelled to apply new technologies in a watchdog manner.
    September 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterGordo

    The expansion and primacy of the internet over recent years has greatly increased the amount of pseudo-journalism, and with it, fauxtography. In the past, as mentioned in the article, there are definite instances of abuse or misrepresentation in photojournalism.

    Perlmutter notes that there has been a greater awareness and effort to address the issue, and up until very recently, it may have been the case that the mainstream media had ratcheted up their standards in reporting news.

    The advent of photoshop and the explosion of blogs, while leveling the playing field in some respects, also lends itself to greater manipulation. Perhaps the technology itself is a bit too new, and a bit too tempting for “journalists” or websites attempting to make a name for themselves. Hopefully this is an aberration, and a practice restricted to just a few unsavory sources.

    Accumulation of credibility requires the passage of time. It is hoped that one day these pseudo-journalists will readjust their frequencies a tad and try to hone in on what “the truth” is regardless of their political proclivities.

    Finally…and this may expose me as a total charlatan with respect to digital photography – but maybe the answer will take care of itself in a few years with technology being used to combat technology — that is, maybe there will emerge some sort of “fingerprint” that would be the functional equivalent of a film negative to prove the validity of a particular photo.
    September 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Colbert

    At first glance, many photos I have seen seem to be real and untouched. Growing up there was no need for me to second-guess what photos have been altered and “touched-up” to seem more appealing. Today, with such additions of Photoshop and other such-type technologies, we have to question what is real and what is not. Photos are being transformed to make people look better or worse, scenes look fake, and everything else imaginable. I feel that the real photojournalists, the ones who know, as well as others too, that their photos are true captures of moments in time. They can feel proud of the work they have done and have no reason to change anything wrong with the photo…because there is nothing wrong. Photojournalists need to continue to take pictures. In fact, take more than ever and find that one picture, that one that is perfect and needs no touch up.
    September 18, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjohn doe

    As tempting as it is to blame technology, and our adaption to it, as the cause of this particular set of unethical behaviors, change will never be new. Every field, whether it’s black smithing or journalism, will have erratic but sometimes big jumps in ability, speed, and impact. Technology is a neutral condition. If it has happened to expose laziness or the unethical habits of people comfortable with their state of affairs, then THAT should be the focus of debate. People are not neutral. Trying to argue whether we should pay attention to a world of bloggers is like debating the impact of asphalt while standing in the middle of the New Jersey Turnpike. Fortunately, this particular technology brought with it the ability to rapidly cross-check it’s own “experts”. If it hadn’t, we would have made one.
    September 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWillyOck

    People automatically assume that the faux-tographer has an agenda of some sort when they alter a photo. In the case of Katie Couric’s slimmer doppleganger, the intention was obviously to make Katie more “attractive”, because America hates women with waists over 8 inches. Dumb move by the photo editors, and unnecessary, as it only brought unneeded criticism.

    Then we have the faux-tos from Lebanon. Does it really matter if a burning Koran was staged or not? Is the image still not a burning symbol of a religious conflict out of control? Was adding more smoke to the smoking buildings making the conflict seem worse than it was? Sometimes the motives of the critics need to be examined just as much as the motives of the faux-tographers themselves.
    September 18, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterFloydMaster

    I have always been fascinated with the art of photography. The way one particular image can capture so many feelings is truly amazing to me. However, it is even more amazing that photographers today want to take that medium and destroy it. “Fauxtography” has destroyed our love for photography and replaced it with criticism.
    It is true that many people are cynical about the media and believe that reporters often lie to the public. I must be naive then in saying that if that is how the media works, I want no part in it. Is it so hard to report the facts as is? Do we really need to take war photos and enhance them, as if war isn’t graphic enough already? Maybe if the media world would shape up and use technology only in honest and beneficial ways, the public would not be so critical of it.

    September 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterOatmeal

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