Archive for the ‘Photo manipulation’ Category


Ethics Week: A New Reality

VR library through the Vrse app for iPhone

Virtual reality is one of the most exciting advancements in storytelling over the past few years. Like any knew advancement, the technology presents a number of ethical questions that need to be addressed.


The New York Times pushed virtual reality into the mainstream in November, when the news organization sent more than one million inexpensive VR viewers to subscribers. The distribution of the viewers coincided with the debut of “The Displaced,” which is a VR film about children from three war-torn countries.

The point of VR is not just to tell a story, but to help viewers understand the messages through immersion. The Times’ investment in VR was met with great fanfare, but also concern, according to the paper’s then-Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.

“Many Times readers were excited by what they experienced and sent congratulatory notes,” she wrote. “But not everyone was pleased,” she added later.

Aside from adapting to the new technology, one of the main complaints about VR is that production requires a closer interaction between journalist and subject than other methods of storytelling.

Unlike traditional news photography , VR requires journalists to strategically place cameras settings and then quickly leave the area. They must also coordinate with subjects to get special footage from bikes, cars and boats.

While those concerns are valid, it’s difficult to say that VR is more intrusive than other forms of visual media. Longform video and photography projects require some intrusiveness, and those boundaries are still debated more than a century after the introduction of both technologies.

More complicated ethical problems may present themselves when the cameras stop filming, and a journalist finds himself in the editing room.

One of the most pressing questions is how much is too much? Like traditional photography and video, VR may show the horrors of war, terrorism and other horrible events. Journalists editing VR films have to ask if the threshold of what can be shown  is lower due to the immersive nature of the technology.

In 2015, Kathleen Bartzen Culver wrote a piece for the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics about the potential for VR to induce trauma.

“VR coverage of war, torture, rape and other violence will prompt searing questions about lasting consequences of consuming journalism that eclipse our current research on media effects,” she writes.

Bartzen Culver also quotes Dan Pacheco, of the S.I. Newhouse journalism school at Syracuse University. He suggests keeping subjects and audiences in mind more  than the possibilities of the technology.

At the end of the day, a good discussion over the ethical challenges of each new VR project may help direct journalists to the most responsible actions.

Some important questions can include:

  • Is VR the right way to tell this story?
  • What is the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable interaction with subjects?
  • What is the limit of what is acceptable for VR viewers to see?
  • Who may be especially affected by the immersive experience of this story?

Of course, there are a number of questions that could and should be considered before and during a VR project. The key is open conversation between all journalists and editors.

As always, the Society’s Code of Ethics will also be useful during those conversations.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Covering the Transgender Community

Photo Illustration

Photo Illustration (Original Photo Credit: Flickr/George Kelly)

A very bright magazine cover caught my eyes one day as I waited to pay for a few items at a grocery store.


The magazine In Touch edited Bruce Jenner’s face into another picture of a woman. For effect, the magazine added bright lips, thin eyebrows and rosy cheeks.

Unlike the magazine’s name, the cover was out of touch, distasteful and offensive. The Society’s Code of Ethics is clear that journalists should treat sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.

The cover and other recent media coverage of Jenner is based on reports that the reality TV star and Olympic athlete is transgender. Jenner did not make any such public claim, however.

While U.S. journalists are increasingly familiar with transgender people in public roles, they likely haven’t reported on a high-profile person’s gender transition.

In response, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), of which I am also a member, published an open letter about covering transgender people.

We are not an advocacy group. Our mission is to ensure fair and accurate coverage of issues that affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.

In the letter, NLGJA offers sound advice and terms for covering transgender people. The advice also covers how to approach the unconfirmed reports about Jenner’s transition.

The letter can be found on NLGJA’s website. Additionally, the organization offers a comprehensive stylebook on LGBT terminology.


Andrew Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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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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