Photo manipulation is a big deal

Outside magazine’s July issue is the latest example of using digitally altered photography to distort reality and to mislead readers. The cover shows Lance Armstrong, who is 38, wearing a T-shirt that says, “38. BFD.”

The point the magazine apparently is attempting to convey is that Armstrong, winner of seven consecutive Tours de France and a survivor of testicular cancer, is unconcerned about his age. “BFD” is a vernacular acronym meaning “big fucking deal.”

The problem is, Armstrong’s T-shirt did not say that; it was digitally added later, without his knowledge.

The magazine defended its use of digital manipulation as creative license, and pointed out that it carried a disclaimer that says: “Note: Not Armstrong’s real T-shirt.” But the disclaimer is in such small type that it is unreadable in the online version.

The magazine acknowledged the controversy in a statement that says, “We wanted to create a provocative image and make a bold statement about the fact that, because of Armstrong’s age, many cycling fans are skeptical of his chances in this year’s Tour de France.”

But it did not acknowledge that digital manipulation is wrong or apologize to Armstrong or to its readers.

Armstrong rightfully reacted with fury against Outside. He sent a Twitter message saying, “Just saw the cover of the new Outside mag w/ yours truly on it. Nice photoshop on a plain t-shirt guys. That’s some lame bullshit.”

The “message” on the T-shirt would make a legitimate teaser for the story if it had not been emblazoned on the shirt, creating the erroneous impression that it was Armstrong himself who was conveying the idea that he is unconcerned about his age.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should:
• Make certain that headlines, news teases, promotional material, photos, videos, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
• Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.

Outside skirts the spirit if not the letter of the Code of Ethics with its virtually unreadable disclaimer. This altered photo clearly does misrepresent and highlights something out of context.

The SPJ Ethics Committee has dealt with several recent cases of digital manipulation of images. Just because something is now technically feasible to do does not make it journalistically ethical.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly said it was the June issue instead of the July issue

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  • Jill

    I would be very interested in your response to the deliberate cropping of photos by Reuters – more than once! -of the Turkish terrorists on the Mavi Marmara on the Gaza flotilla

    This cropping deliberately omitted showing that the Turkish terrorist had a knife, that there was a pool of blood from an Israeli soldier of the photo, that there was another israeli soldier in the back of the photo.…/36489_Another_Cropped_Reuters_Photo_Deletes_Another_Knife_-_And_a_Pool_of_Blood

    Has the SPJ commented on this matter? It is disgusting to have this kind of “reportage” posing as truth.

  • Andy Schotz

    Here’s the link again. There’s an error in the link above.

    Here’s what the SPJ Code of Ethics ( says:
    — Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.

  • Wow, photoshopping Lance Armstrong’s shirt for an activity-related magazine is pretty controversial stuff.

    I can see why you don’t waste your time blogging about a cabal of 400 prominent journalists holding a private forum on current events and news with leftwing political operatives and leftwing bloggers from February 2007 to June 2010, and how that group pressured participating journalists not to report anything negative about a candidate for a party’s nomination and Presidential campaign! When all the “cool kids” in mainstream journalism didn’t want to run afoul of the popular group and report anything negative about a guy.

    Could the lack of reporting on that particular candidate’s (and, oh wow, President) extremely “progressive” (if you want to stop short of Marxist/Leftist) views now that they’re put into action be why he’s not very popular outside the “progressive” base?

    Maybe you could do a piece on Lindsay Lohan going to jail and the news coverage?

  • chizwoz

    Well at least the objectivity is working: Arse Technica are right dicks.

  • Michael Koretzky

    I’m not hip to the latest slang. Is “right dicks” good or bad?

  • chizwoz

    Yet you know of Final Fantasy! I meant some of the site owners are disagreeable persons. At least 2 of them buy into the “everything’s sexist/racist” shtick that I noticed you’ve now been formally introduced to. Not complaining though. Deliberately excluding people based on their beliefs and personalities is what caused this whole mess in the first place. Wouldn’t solve anything if we did the same.


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