Wednesday, August 09, 2006

They were fast, weren't they?

Times corrected the bad caption so fast that the posting on my blog went out on the feed with the corrected caption that I cut and pasted from the (unknown to me) updated page.

But I do have a PDF of the original caption, which had identified the manipulated photo as the original, and the original as the one doctored by the photographer.

Crazy things happen late into the night.

Keep a close eye on this page at may change suddenly

The New York Times is playing catch-up on the story of the Reuters freelance photographer who altered photos of an air raid on Beirut. In its third-day lead on the story, "Bloggers Drive Inquiry on How Altered Images Saw Print," the Times displays the two images as moved in a matched set by Reuters after the deception was discovered.

The problem is that the Times originally had the caption information backwards. The Times caption on the page when I read it first stated: "A photographer has been accused of doctoring a photo of an Israeli air raid on Beirut. The original picture, left, and the manipulated image, right."

The doctored photo is obviously the one on the left, with telltale circular marks in the smoke plume that are clear evidence of tampering with the "clone stamp" tool in PhotoShop.

During the time I was writing this blog entry, I also emailed the Times' web editor, and they changed the caption error. The caption now is correct on the Times' site. (They corrected it before I could paste it into this entry...I had to go back to the cached version of the page in my browser -- from which I also made a PDF.

If anyone wants to see it, let me know.

Reuters identified the doctored photo accurately in its caption with these same two images. I wonder why the Times changed the wording and had to have it pointed out to them?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Once is apparently not enough for fired Reuters freelance photographer...

And once was not enough for the Lebanese freelance photographer fired by Reuters.

According to the wire service, a review of all the photos he had sold them turned up yet another photo, this time of an Israeli jet dropping a flare. Adnan Hajj apparently added a few more flares to the photo. Reuters has withdrawn hundreds of Hajj's photos from its archives.

Excuse me, could you move those pyramids over there where the light is better?

There's a troubling trend going on among photojournalists, and it has to do with using a little too much of the functionality in the digital darkroom of everyone's choice, Adobe Photoshop.

Photoshop is the program where photographers weave digital magic around their photographs, but the people who provide images to the mainstream, legitimate news media are not supposed to tinker with what's in the image. It's so easy to manipulate digital photos that the name of this software program is often used as a verb, as in "I broke up with that girlfriend, so I Photoshopped her out of the picture."

Today we learned that a freelance photographer for Reuters was fired for adding a few more plumes of smoke to a scene of Beirut under attack.

Reuters, you will remember, is the wire service that refuses to use the word "terrorist" to describe people who strap explosives to their bodies and detonate them around civilians. As a matter of style, Reuters will only call them "insurgents."

The Reuters caption for these two pictures reads: "Reuters on Sunday withdrew an image of smoke rising from burning buildings after an Israeli air strike on the suburbs of Beirut on August 5, 2006 after evidence emerged that it had been manipulated to show more smoke. The manipulated image is shown on the left. The unaltered image, shown on the right, has since run. Reuters has told the photographer, freelance Adnan Hajj, that the agency will not use any more of his pictures."

The photographer claimed that working in a low light environment made it hard for him to realize what changes he was making to the photo. Come on, it's a completely different tool in PhotoShop to change brightness and contrast. Surely he would know he was using the cloning tool...

Manipulation of images is nothing new. It began when photography did. The problem is the images today can be more convincing than ever.
In 1982, National Geographic was discovered using expensive (at the time) computerized retouching equipment to artfully squeeze the Great Pyramids of Giza a little bit closer together so that the horizontal photo could be used on the vertical magazine's cover. They also later admitted to making a man's hat just a bit taller for the same reason. They took a real reputation hit on that one.

You'd think that would have been enough for NG to swear off fakery, but apparently not. Steve Kapsinow reports on the Graphic Design Forum that a National Geographic publication has been caught again, this time buying this PhotoShop composite as if it were a real photo.

A few weeks ago, the Charlotte Observer fired a photographer for adjusting the color too much in a dramatic photograph of a fireman against a brilliant orange sky. The problem is the original photograph didn't have a brilliant orange sky, it was a muddy brown.

The photographer, Patrick Schneider, was in trouble for his PhotoShop prowess a few years ago. He got suspended for alterations he made to some photographs.

You don't have to have a lot of expertise to do something that will fool people.

Look at this crude effort of mine. I like to tell people the reason Ari Fleischer left the White House was because I decided not to renew his license to use my face.

Paul Martin Lester, a professor on the communications faculty at the University of California at Fullerton, wrote a book about ethics in photojournalism in 1991. It's now available on the web and should be required reading for photojournalists.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Say, Don, what are you putting on your grass roots to make them so green?

Public relations professionals know that one of the best ways to influence public opinion and ultimately achieve changes in consumer behavior, including influencing legislation, is when citizens engage in "grass roots" action, forming activist groups and communicating with their elected officials and other public policy "influentials."

Over the past several decades, a less honest form of grassroots campaigning has arisen, fueled by powerful interests trying to take advantage of the effectiveness of citizen voices. You see this whenever some group with a high-sounding name, like "Citizens for Good Government," calls a press conference to complain about some issue. Only later do you discover that the grassroots organization is really being sponsored by some group that has exactly the opposite goal from what the name suggests. In PR, we call this an "AstroTurf" campaign or AstroTurfing. As we all know, AstroTurf does not really have grassroots.

It is artificial. But today, too many issues oriented campaigns are about capturing emotional reactions, not about having a real dialogue or conversation.

That's why so many people are turned off to politics and issues. It's more about who has the best sound bite, or whose army of young interns can get a blog entry posted more quickly, not about thoughtful debate over substantive issues. It's about ridiculing your opponent before he/she makes fun of you. Look at all the video mashups of the Howard Dean post-election rally where he was trying to revv up his campaign workers, and his cheerleading scream was looped a million times to make him look unstable.

Today's Wall Street Journal reports on a video lampooning Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" movie.

The video, which has Gore brainwashing penguins and blaming global warming for making Lindsay Lohan lose weight, sounds very funny. But when the Journal tried to contact the purported "amateur" who created the animation, his email response to the Journal included IP address information that the Journal was able to trace to a computer owned by a Washington PR firm that has oil companies as its clients.

There's nothing wrong with PR firms representing oil companies. There's nothing wrong with PR firms proposing as part of a public dialogue points of view that differ with those of people who disagree with their clients.

But it impedes the channels of honest communications when firms create an impression of a grass roots activity where none exists.

The Public Relations Society of America, the largest professional organization of PR practitioners, has a Code of Ethics and Professional Standards that, among other things, appears to prohibit members from engaging in the creation of deceptive "AstroTurf" campaigns. The Code indicates that it would be improper conduct for a PRSA member to engage in (among other things) this kind of activity:

"Front groups: A member implements "grass roots" campaigns or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups."

In August 2004, PRSA's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards issued a Professional Standards Advisory reminding members that creating unidentified "front" groups violated the code.

From what I can tell, the PR firm featured in the Journal article does not have any employees who are members of PRSA, so it is not subject to the provisions of the PRSA Code of Ethics and Professional Standards. That's too bad.

Some other communications practitioners are beginning to voice the same opinion. Shel Holtz, ABC, Fellow, IABC, an A-list blogger and For Immediate Release podcast host, says in his blog entry on this topic, "Astroturfing has no place in any PR practitioner’s toolkit. It is deceptive, dishonest, unethical."

It seems there is now a real grass roots campaign forming among PR professionals to make everyone involved in the communications business play by a set of ethical guidelines.

I hope this movement gets lots of care and feeding. If we don't stand up for honest and ethical communications, we deserve all the negative impressions people have of PR as an occupation.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Including "and" and "the" Mary once said.

Philadelphia Inquirer readers were greeted this morning with the crossing of the first journalistic Rubicon, as publisher Joe Natoli was reported leaving the paper to take a position as "senior vice president of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., starting next month," the paper reported. I don't know Natoli's decision process, but on the several occasions I met and chatted with him, he seemed like a sharp guy. But please, how many newspaper publishers in major metropolitan markets REALLY aspire to running the finances of a university?

The story, by respected business writer Joe DiStefano, who has done a highly responsible job with the unpleasant task of reporting about his new boss, goes on to say that "Brian Tierney, chief executive officer of the investors' group that bought The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and in June, now will also take on the role of the newspapers' publisher, but not the title."

All I can say is, I told you so.

So much for the promises, written and oral, that he would keep his hands off the editorial side of the newspaper. Now he has them around the news side's throat. All that's left is the squeeze.

Interestingly, while the story ran in the lead column position on the front of the business section, it is not billboarded on the newspaper's website as one of its lead business stories. Guess we don't want to draw too much attention to the new owner's first move to take closer control of the editorial side of the newspaper.