Badgers unethical in photo alteration

On Sept. 19 The Daily Cardinal, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student newspaper, reported that the university’s admissions office doctored a brochure cover by inserting a black student amid a white crowd at a football game. Admissions officials’ use of deception to demonstrate campus diversity makes justification for the photo manipulation impossible. Admissions director Rob Seltzer quickly admitted to altering the photo and apologized. Although this was one incident, photo-alteration programs like Adobe PhotoShop make it easier than ever to enhance or distort pictures.
Most professional photographers, however, are averse to photo manipulation and abide by a code of ethics that has rules regarding digital editing. These rules allow for cropping, spot and dust removal,color correction and electronic sharpening.
While these rules might seem simple to follow, exceptions to these ethical guidelines occasionally occur. On Time magazine’s June 27, 1994, cover photo, editors manipulated a mug shot of O.J. Simpson by artificially darkening his skin. Although a photo’s color balance is often adjusted by editors, the racial implications of Time’s color adjustment had serious consequences. Newsweek ran the same photo without any alterations and the two mug shots stood side by side on news racks. What was meant to be an aesthetic alteration, the National Press Photographers Association called an “abomination to the impact of the original, truthful-looking photo.” Time’s managing editor apologized in a letter to readers for unintentionally making Simpson’s darkened skin “look sinister.”
Concerns for the photo subject might take precedence over the rules prohibiting digital manipulation causing a photographer to sidestep ethical guidelines, as The Orange County Register did in the 1980s when the California newspaper digitally zipped up the pants of a young boy. Had the photo been published without the alteration the child would have been grossly embarrassed. But if the photo had been cut, it would have disrupted paper layouts and deadlines and would probably have subtracted the reader’s interest in the story.
National Geographic, The Post-Dispatch and TV Guide are major publications guilty of digitally manipulating pictures by eliminating or adding items to their photos. In a country where the press is a ministry to freedom and a democratic watchdog, the increased ease with which photos can be manipulated to become the “perfect” picture could become an alarming trend.
The Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune and The Minnesota Daily all have stalwart rules against photo manipulation, but with the increased convenience of programs like PhotoShop, the future of photo ethics might be endangered.
“If the technology is there, so is the temptation,” says Jack Breslin, a mass communications doctoral candidate, who also teaches a course on media ethics at the University.
No one at the University of Wisconsin could support the manipulation of the brochure, but had the incident not been discovered, it would never have been admitted and retributions would never have been made. “An error in judgement,” according to Seltzer, this incident should have been discussed, with the consequences properly noted. While digital manipulation might become easier to do, the embarrassment to the publication is irreparable.