By Robert Buckman | June 26th, 2010
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