Monday, August 14, 2006

Fake Reuters Photos, "True" Text

Little Green Footballs's exposure of certain Reuter's photos as photoshopped has gotten the blogosphere in an uproar. People probably always suspected that there is a certain amount of fakery that goes on in major news outlets, but it's one thing to suspect it, and other thing to have it shoved in your face. Reuters, unsurprisingly, has come out with a statement that "Manipulating photographs in this way is entirely unacceptable and contrary to all the principles consistently held by Reuters throughout its long and distinguished history." On their blog (truth be told, I had no idea Reuters had a blog until recently), the company has posted an explanation of what they consider appropriate use of Photoshop.

The problem with the LGF revelation isn't that we should all embrace photo fakery as good and just (though many out in the blogosphere have taken a position that has come to be known as "fake, but true" -- the idea that a photo or story can be faked but still convey the truth.*). My objection is that it creates a standard that suggests that any photo that is not electronically manipulated conveys the truth. And here is the real reason for this post: textual scholarship understands that by manipulating the medium for a text (in this case, photo), an editor can change the reader's interpretation of that text.

Before getting on to the fun textual stuff, let's deal first with the current event, photo fakery. Reuters's explanation of their policy boils down, essentially, to forbidding/discouraging the use of certain Photoshop tools. In terms of a corporate policy, this seems fine to me, since it allows a broad-brush standard to be painted into place. It does little, however, to help readers understand how the stuff they run is manipulated all the time. Let's take the simplest description of their policy:
The rules are – no additions or deletions, no misleading the viewer by
manipulation of the tonal and colour balance to disguise elements of an image or
to change the context.

Let's think about the idea of taking a photo. Everyone reading this has taken a picture at one time or another, so we should all understand that when they talk about additions or deletions, they mean something more like "additions or deletions within the frame of the final photo we decide to run." First of all, the photographers add and delete material all the time, when they decide what to take pictures of, and what not to take pictures of. For every picture that appears in with a story, photographers have taken dozens, but only one or two will appear with the story; the editor will "delete" the other images by not running them.

Or consider the framing of a shot. Photographers necessarily add and delete content every time they decide what to include in the frame, and what to exclude. If you've ever seen a TV or movie set, you understand the importance of this framing; movie sets are chaotic masses of equipment and people milling about, except for the frame that will go into the film -- that part is perfect. OK, but once the photo is taken, that's all that gets deleted, right? No, it is perfectly acceptable to crop photos, i.e. cut them to size, or cut out extraneous material. Let's say you have the top of someone's head poking into the bottom frame of the photo -- you just cut off the bottom part of the photo altogether, thus removing the head perfectly ethically.

My point here is that all images are manipulated in the editing process; this is simply part of good editing. The real ethical standard is something that is much more difficult to pin down than a list of Photoshop tools that are permitted/forbidden. The real ethical standard is something more like this: good editing clarifies, while bad editing obscures. The people who argue that documents or photos are "fake, but true," are trying to stretch that ethical standard as far as they possibly can, so that it comes to mean something more like, "good editing depicts what I like, and bad editing depicts what I don't like."

But what of text? OK, so you can manipulate photos and film, but surely text cannot be manipulated, just so long as the quote is accurate, right? No ... textual editors have the ability to manipulate readers' interpretations by how they present the text.

Let's start with the example of font. Font, to most people's understanding, is simply a matter of readability and style. In fact, we associate particular fonts with particular impressions. Through the manipulation of font, I can make a text appear futuristic, Asian, archaic, frightening, etc. Blogger doesn't offer a great variety of fonts, but it perhaps offers enough to make this point. Let's consider a single word: "Iraq". Now, "Iraq" as a word has in and of itself little truth content (it's hard to have truth/falsehood without a verb). Here is the word in the various fonts offered by Blogger:
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
  • Iraq
The last font is Wingdings, so I haven't included that one. Each time you look at the word "Iraq" in the above, you probably get a slightly different feeling. What if I manipulated the color, or size? What if I used one of those scary fonts? What if I used a font that looks like military stencils? Or, what if I placed the word near particular images. Consider, for example, the banner over the Iraqi Embassy's website. Looking at those words, "The Embassy of the Republic of Iraq, Washington D.C.," I get the feeling that Iraq is a country of rich, ancient culture, where I might perhaps want to vacation some time. When I see the words "Iraq: Stories, Visuals" here, I think of a very religious Muslim country. The words "Iraq Emergency" here make me think of a country that is in terrible poverty. None of these phrases can be considered a lie, but each of them leads the reader into interpreting the word "Iraq" in very different ways.

Of course, all that is just font. Textual editors have to consider everything from placement on the page, to footnotes vs. endnotes vs. no notes, to the type of paper/website text appears. You want people to think you are a crackpot? Put text on yellow, badly photocopied paper, in Courier font. Put that same text on neat, clean letterhead with a Times New Roman font, and suddenly you have a press release.

What I'm trying to get at here is that a critical reader of text (and this includes still images and film) will continue to use a critical eye long after it has been established that no unusual electronic manipulation of a text has occurred. Everything that you read (including this post) is "manipulated" in the sense of being edited. Wise readers will always be aware of the editing process.

To close, I leave you with this clip from The Simpsons. As Homer says, "But listen to the music! He's evil!"

*Presumably there are a lot of Daily Show fans in this group. Here's a non-faked news bulletin for you: If you back faked documents/photos, calling yourself part of a "reality-based" community is really hilarious.


  1. Anonymous10:59 AM

    Great post.

    What about the problem of interpretation. What I mean is what baggage the reader or viewer brings to the experience, making the manipulation, whether ethical or unethical, a bit unpredictable.

    Also, political behavior research, for which I cannot, off the top of my head, produce a citation, demonstrates that people tend to be resistent to information that does not match their paradigm. Could even ethical manipulation be overstated in its effectiveness with that in mind?

  2. Editing does not provide the information; it sets the paradigm. A clever editor has a great deal of power. I'm sure it is possible to overstate its effectiveness, but I think in many cases the presentation of the material is far more influencial than the information itself.

  3. Anonymous5:10 AM

    We should scrap editng completely.

  4. Anonymous6:27 PM

    Also, have there ever been any embarassing books on the profile photo bookshelf?

    If so, were they taken out using photoshop, or removed immediately before the picture was taken?

  5. Brendan,

    I hadn't even considered what books were behind me, so your comment left me scurrying to look at the titles behind me.

    The titles weren't embarrassing, but if you look very carefully in the upper-left hand corner, you'll see a phallic symbol from Cheju Island.

    Perhaps I should photoshop it out.

  6. Anonymous10:49 PM

    Oh, none of the titles were embarrassing, hmm?

    And don't try any of that "there's space dust covering up more words" stuff on me -- there's none there, I checked.

  7. Anonymous11:02 PM

    (If that post doesn't work for any reason, try loading up "!.jpg")

  8. Anonymous5:47 AM

    Stunning detective work cappy.....

    Thomas Harris would be proud!

    I can only see "Compact German" and a big (English?) dictionary, and I missed the little phallic statue completely.

    Which makes me think: Perhaps you should use photoshop to enlarge it? (Forgive me, I've just been watching Will and Grace)