Ethical dilemmas regarding photo editing and manipulation in the print media

This essay will offer an ephemeral outline of the history of image manipulation, before presenting a discussion about the definition of image editing. Through exploring a number of interviews with editors, journalists and news photographers, this dissertation will present different perspectives on questions surrounding image editing; how pictures are edited in newsprint on a day-to-day basis, what the value of a picture is depending on its context, and how both pictures and text can skew “the truth” of a scene. It will ultimately try to recommend what solutions are available to ease the ethical dilemmas, in the eyes of the readers, the photographers, the journalists and the editors of a news print medium.

Brief historical overview

Ever since Photography was invented and made practical with the Daguerreotype photography early in the 19th century, a photograph has been perceived to be identical to “the truth”.

This perception is exemplified by the common phrase “seeing is believing”. This phrase is likely to have originated in “the technological fact that photographs, videotapes and motion pictures are, in some ways, ‘fossilized light’, created by a chemical and mechanical process that captures a direct physical imprint of reality.” (Winick 1997) “That the camera cannot lie is true only in the sense that the images it captures must have existed in one form or another at some particular time” (Lester, 1988)

Image editing has been around as long as photography has existed. The first counterfeit photograph was made by Hippolyte Bayard more than 160 years ago, in 1840 (Lester 1991). Controversial, manipulated photographs have been part of history ever since.

To get pictures of usable quality in the early days of photography, photographers used dye or ink on their negatives and final prints to remove blemishes and errors. It is a well-known fact that the sports pages of newspapers around the world had a box full of pictures of footballs, to make the pictures from football matches look better in print. (Thrane 2002)

Image editing explained

“Image editing” is a concept that might be rather difficult to define. The notion that a photographic picture offers the whole truth is an axiom, but is nevertheless incorrect. As a matter of fact, a photograph has never been an exact representation of reality. Initially, all photography was black and white, and the world was hardly in greyscale when photography was invented. (Lester 1991)

What is image editing, then? Although cropping objects or people out of an image can make a picture just as misleading as actually editing the picture itself, the cropping of images is an artefact inherent in the genre of photography. Cropping of images can happen within several stages of the photographic process: when it is taken, the photographer might decide to pick out certain elements of a picture by using a telephoto or zoom objective. After the picture is recorded, part of the negative might be masked off, or the picture can be cropped digitally after it has been scanned into a computer.

We can assume that cropping an image is usually acceptable (Cromey 2002). There are, however, numerous of other changes that can be made to a picture;

It is possible to change the colour space , hue and saturation of the picture. These three are crucial in newsprint, because of the physical differences between the visible light spectrum and print processes. The colour space, hue and saturation have to be calibrated to resemble “reality” as closely as possible. However, when editing these three, it is also possible to make a picture taken on a grey, cloudy day look like it was taken in sunshine. Making a picture look “colder” (more blue) or “warmer” (more red) may change the way an image is perceived. (Cromey 2002)

While the changes described earlier might change the “feel” of an image, they do not change the actual content. A common technique used particularly in fashion magazines, is to remove imperfections in a model’s skin, through a process known as cloning. When cloning a part of an image, you effectively replace an area of an image with other areas of the same picture. This technique is not limited to small shortcomings – it is possible to clone out debris, or even people, backgrounds or anything else from a picture.

For scientific photography, Cromey (2002) concludes that there are a few uncomplicated guidelines to what is and is not ethical in image editing. He explains how simple adjustments to the whole image, such as hue and saturation mentioned above, are normally acceptable. Manipulating a limited part of an image (Such as only a face or a sky) is unethical. The idea of limited-area editing being unethical is further extended to cloning, using software filters, dodging and burning

Image editing in news print

Cromey’s rules are related to scientific photography. However, news has a different role in society. In news, there are different ways of changing the content of an image – but there are also different degrees of change; “Changes to content can be Accidental or Essential. Essential changes change the meaning of the photograph and accidental changes change useless details, but do not change the real meaning” (NPPA 2000)

It is just here – in the margin between accidental and essential changes – where the major ethical questions are found. Through my own research, it became clear that news photographers disagree strongly between them. As a simple example, we can discuss the red-eye phenomenon. Although most press photographers should be professional enough to be able to avoid red eyes from flash use in their photographs, it does occasionally happen. The ethical argument would be whether or not it is “right” to remove the red eyes from an image. Purists would say that changing anything like this in an image is incorrect. On the other hand – the person in question would never be seen with red eyes if it had not been for the photographer taking the picture. The majority of the photographers asked agreed that removing red eyes is an acceptable practice, because this is an accidental change.

More controversy is caused by the following scenario: Imagine two people, dressed in 1960s hippie clothing, are sitting on the lawn in front of a public building, protesting globalisation. A press photographer gets a few pictures, and runs back to his newsroom to get the pictures back to the editor. In front of the couple, there is a Coca-Cola can. In the background, you can see the side door of the press photographer’s Porsche. Removing both from the pictures can be done in less than ten minutes. It could be argued that the photographer could have moved his car and thrown away the Coke can. If he had done that, the photograph would not have required editing.

Some would argue “if portions of an image for publication were selectively enhanced, the author should state it clearly in the figure legend” (Cromey 2002). However, this would probably result in a picture caption like “Two children playing on the beach, before the oil tanker sank just off the coast. Picture ©2002 Haje Jan Kamps. Two Coca-Cola™ cans and four Snickers™ wrappers and a twig protruding from the sand were removed from the image. The sky was digitally enhanced to look more blue, and the colour of the spade one of the children is playing with has been desaturated a little, to make sure that it did not dominate the image”. Needless to say, this is not going to happen anytime soon. Corrective editing such as described in the image caption above happen every day in newsrooms around the world (Lester 1988), and beginning to point it out would be more pointless and confusing than useful. More importantly, however, is that the lack of legends does not matter;

The key is Education. “Only through education will people be able to ‘read’ the Media in a useful way” (Sheridan 2002).

Most people are aware of how easy it is to skew or slant a written news story, by choosing a specific angle, by including or omitting information et cetera. The same goes for photography. “Every photographer takes pictures the way they see things. If you ask ten photographers to cover a demonstration, everybody would have returned with different photographs.” (Landfald 2002)

It has been suggested to mark all edited images with an M or with the (x) symbol. The main problem with this would be that marking edited images with a symbol that the general audience would perceive as meaning “fake” would imply that all non-marked images convey the “truth”. As Murray (2002) points out, “Pictures tell truths, but not necessarily the truth.”.

In the research interviews for this essay, it became clear that media professionals are more inclined to trust pictures printed in broadsheet media than pictures found in tabloids. Pictures in fashion magazines were regarded more as art – and therefore further removed from “the truth” – than other images. If the general audience would attain the same attitude, this would be a great step towards making image editing less harmful.

How images can skew reality

“There was a famous picture of the late Princess of Wales on an official visit to Korea with her husband the Prince of Wales. They were both looking in opposite directions and the British press said it was because of their marital difficulties. As it happens, when we saw the whole picture, they were watching people laying memorial wreaths in two different places: the Prince watching one group, the Princess the other.” (Hughes 2002)

All the major image libraries have stock images of Saddam Hussein. When something happens in the world that is relevant to Iraq, VG have about a dozen pictures to choose from. If Hussein, for example, were to announce that he had nuclear weapons, what image would VG use? The picture where Hussain just became president and is grinning, looking content over his victory? Or would they choose a picture where he was listening to somebody else, looking sincere?

The two examples above illustrate how even non-manipulated pictures can build controversy. In the first example, an editor who wants to sell extra newspapers could have maliciously cropped the image. But the photographer could also crop it at the time of recording, which means that the picture would be “legit”. The keyword here, as in all journalism, is context. (NPPA 2000)

The use of archive photos, as illustrated by the second example, is normal practice in newsrooms. This does, however, leave editors with a very vital responsibility. The response from the readers would be very different if the image used shows a grinning Hussein holding a machine gun, to if the archive image used shows a responsible looking Hussein.

Providing the context necessary to understand both the examples above is the responsibility of the editors. This factor is why broadsheets are generally more trusted than tabloid newspapers – because the editors of broadsheet newspapers in general have deserved the trust of the readers more than their tabloid counterparts.


We have seen how image editing has been a part of the history of imagery since the beginnings of photography. There have been numerous examples of newspapers and magazines breaking common sense in the handling of edited images. As the technology for image editing becomes more readily available, cheaper and easier to use, the temptation to perform editing on images is likely to become stronger, even for smaller publications with limited resources.

The only real solution to the problem of image editing is not to force magazines to mark their images, but rather to educate the general public to be critical to images, just as they would be to any text written in a news publication.

As editing tools, such as Adobe Photoshop, become more easily available, chances are that more people will realise how easy it is to edit a photograph.

If “an image is worth a thousand words”, and the average newspaper article is 500 words long, logic would dictate that one has to be twice as critical to photographs as to the text that goes with them.


Cromey, D W (2002) Digital Imaging: Ethics
Hughes, G (2002) Original Research See appendix 1
Landfald, J (2002) Original Research See appendix 1
Lester, P (1988) Faking images in Photojournalism
Lester, P (1991) Photojournalism; An Ethical Approach New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Murray, F (2002) Original Research See appendix 1
National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) (2000) Ethics in the age of Digital Photography NPPA publication,
Sheridan, J (2002) Original Research See appendix 1
Thrane, D (2002) Bildemanipulasjon i trykte media. Discussion forum
Winick, R. (1997) Intellectual Property, Defamation and the Digital Alteration of Visual Images. Journal of Law and the Arts, issue 4 (winter) 1997. New York: Columbia University press.

There were three appendices to this essay, but they have been removed for E2 submission. Appendix 1 contained details of the original research performed. Appendix 2 contained technical details of the original details, and appendix 3 contained examples of edited images.

Oh.. and node your homework! :)

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.