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Enhanced News: When Does Photo Editing Go Too Far?

A week ago, the World Press Photo of the year award went to a digitally enhanced photo taken by Paul Hansen. It’s a really compelling photo, one that SpeigelOnline writers Matthias Krug and Stefan Niggemeier write “conveys a beauty that seems almost innappropriate.”

The fact, though, is that every digital photographer enhances their pictures. Even just adjusting the colors to make it pop on screen is changing the story, altering reality. Of course, in a newsroom, any blatant manipulation of a picture — even one of the protagonisst of Krug and Niggenmeier’s article, Claudio Palmisano of 10b Photography in Rome, notes that they never ‘alter pixels’ — is a violation of journalistic ethics akin to making up quotes or sources. 

But in a digital landscape, where catchy headlines and niche journalism seem to be key components of profitability, it’s hard to distinguish between what’s bias and what’s best practice. 

Is adding a dramatic light just an attention grabber or an opinion? I’m not so sure. The nature of storytelling through words or images is such that just by picking a subject, it becomes interesting or ‘newsworthy.’ The only underlined sentence in my undergrad copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography is this: 

To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have, it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed…

The same could be said of even a written profile on a public figure. In the most theoretical way, any image or story is always biased. So what if you make it more compelling to highlight your point? War journalism is fraught with many issues, and Krug and Niggenmeier seem to conclude that without the enhancement, the photo would be rather ordinary; another photographer was in the same alley and is not as ‘perfect’ as Hansen’s. 

It’s time for a serious discussion about enhanced images. Where do we draw the line in our newsrooms, whether from your own photographers or the images you grab and copy (with credit, of course!) and send around the Web? 

In time, readers and viewers and users will start to wonder, too. Think of cable news — there’s so much editing and shouting and declared bias that it’s become ‘info-tainment.’ The same goes for online publications, where everything should already be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Without strict guidelines about what sorts of images to use and how they are edited or enhanced, any online photo gallery from any news site will have to be treated with the same raised eyebrows as CNN on an election night, and every conspiracy theorist would be sort of right to wonder in your comment section.

Editors and photo journos: What are your policies for editing your images? How do you know when you’ve gone too far? 

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