Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where's the Truth in Journalism?

Hurrah for Lance Armstrong, who called Outside Magazine's choice to heavily manipulate his cover shot "lame bull$#@*." While in a sporting goods store this past weekend I happened to catch a glimpse of the embattled cover and I've got to say: I'm with you, Lance. Photographs should represent the truth of the matter, not be doctored, particularly without the subject's permission, to include material that never shared the stage. Now Outside is just one more media outlet I can no longer trust. If the cover shot isn't true, how do I know the copy is?

Back in my day - yeah, way back then - journalism students were required to take media ethics. Students who couldn't be bothered to take the class were not awarded diplomas. Students who failed didn't earn that Mystical Piece of Paper until they managed to get the idea. The single-term class covered the history, theory and practice of print and broadcast media with a particular focus on ethical dilemmas.

Among the hot topics was the potential for changing the viewers' perspective of an event through photo editing. While the rhetoric of reporting is, by its nature, subjective, the photographic depictions of events were thought to be more objective. The camera told no lies, didn't color the story with it's own sordid history, didn't have opinions either way on the world it saw. The camera merely recorded that split second of time for all to see.

We spent hours discussing the ethics surrounding photography in news media. How much information should be shared? What can be cropped, what cannot? Should presenting news images ever involve dodging or burning out information? What if, for instance, there's a certain soda can in a news image; is it alright to remove the can so as not to provide free advertising, or not to offend paying advertisers? The consensus way back in those dark ages was: a photo should represent the true event. It should not be doctored to remove or add information that was not actually there when the image was taken.

Now, back in those days, photo creation and editing was not nearly as easy and accessible as it is today. It still involved a relatively tedious process. First we rolled film from giant rolls into camera-friendly canisters. Then we loaded the film canisters in the cameras, carefully extending the tail of the film across the film plate and aligned the square holes with the sprocket-like film guide teeth. When our shoot was complete, we cloaked ourselves in complete darkness to roll the film out of the canisters and onto reels (auto-load, if we were lucky), dropped them into tanks of caustic chemicals and agitated gently for a prescribed period of time. If we managed that half correctly, we were rewarded with tiny, still, negative images. Then came the printing: light-sensitive paper, clunky enlargers, more caustic chemicals, more darkness, some red light, squeegees, print dryers, stained clothes and, finally, the reward of photographic prints.

It was in the printing stage that serious doctoring could take place. But that was nothing like the changes we can make from the comfort and relatively cleanliness of our computer desks with photo editing software. The changes can be absolutely magical, but they also pose a problem on that ethics stage. When is editing too much? Is it OK to sharpen the focus? Is it alright to remove a blemish? If so, why, Outside is surely asking itself, is it not acceptable to place whatever logo the editor wants on a cover model's blank shirt? What's the big deal about printing "38" to represent his age and "B.F.D." to represent Outside's take on Lance's age in relation to the Tour de France?

The big deal is that Lance wore a plain shirt for the shoot. He didn't wear a sponsor-emblazoned shirt. He didn't go bare chested. And he didn't advertise his age and some editor's sentiment on the shirt he chose. He presented himself as he wanted to be seen, and editors created an entirely different message without seeking his approval. While the cover did note, in smaller text, that the shirt was doctored, the damage was already done - from news racks, passersby saw the large image, not the explanatory text. Really, it wasn't a lot different from BP doctoring its shots, creating UFO mythology, or removing pop stars' belly buttons and such. But Outside editors don't see it that way.

Think I'm a wacko? Well, at least I'm not alone. The message is clear: unless you saw it happen yourself, you really can't be sure what's presented is true. Take everything you read or see with a heavy dose of salt, do your own research, and think for yourselves. News, the stuff of tomorrow's history books, will never be the same.

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