/ 20 September 2012

Blurring the line between fact and fiction

The Citizen newspaper has been accused of breaching ethical codes after it doctored an image on its front page on Wednesday.
The Citizen newspaper has been accused of breaching ethical codes after it doctored an image on its front page on Wednesday.

The Citizen newspaper has come under fire after it emerged that the newspaper doctored an image displayed on the front page of its Wednesday edition.

The image in question, which was supplied by Agence France-Presse, shows the burnt out husk of the minibus destroyed in a suicide bomb attack that killed eight South Africans in Kabul this week.

The original image shows the bodies of two men lying among the wreckage. But the image on the cover of the Citizen on Wednesday did not show any bodies. These had been cloned out using editing software. When the alteration to the image was noticed, a furious debate broke out on Twitter concerning the ethics of such photo manipulation.

Freelance journalist Julian Rademeyer tweeted: "Scandalous decision by the Citizen yesterday to digitally manipulate its front page Kabul pic & clone out bodies."

Eyewitness News reporter Barry Bateman tweeted: "This is fraud – edited as if bodies [were] never there."

Photojournalist Craig Nieuwenhuizen tweeted: "I think its just sad cause now people will wonder if any of [the] staff pics are manipulated."

Others questioned whether race was a factor in the decision to obscure the bodies of the men killed in Kabul, when those killed at Marikana were displayed.

Journalist Michelle Solomon tweeted: "Why show bodies of Marikana miners then aggressively edit out these bodies?"

"Are the bodies of white people more sacred than the bodies of poor black miners? This pic is just as gory as Marikana pics," she later added.

Ethical breach
Major newspapers often have very strict guidelines concerning the use of images. The New York Times, for example, states that images that depict reality must be "genuine in every way" and that "no people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene [except for the recognised practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions]."

The South African Press Code states that "pictures shall not misrepresent or mislead nor be manipulated to do so".

Dangerous ground
Wits University journalism professor Anton Harber, meanwhile, said the manipulation of news pictures is dangerous ground.

"The Citizen's motivation may be good, but they have pursued it unethically. If the body was not acceptable to their audience — and one has to ask why others have been judged more acceptable — they should have used another picture, or cropped it, or moved it inside the paper and carried it with a warning, or at the very least have told readers that they had manipulated the picture," he said

Harber, who questioned whether the paper had gotten permission from the news agency and photographer to manipulate the image, said that the editing of the image was a bad precedent, which was open to abuse.

The Citizen explains
Shortly afterwards, the National Press Club called on The Citizen to explain itself.

The Citizen responded by releasing a statement saying that it regretted having cloned out the image and that steps would be taken to ensure that it does not happen again.

"A decision had been made during an editorial conference to run the picture but to blur out the bodies, as was done during television broadcasts of the aftermath of the attack. This directive was not carried out. Instead the bodies were digitally cloned out of the photo," it explained.

The Citizen's editor Martin Williams said the photo should never have been published in the form that it was.

"Due to the much more graphic nature of the Kabul blast photo, we felt that blurring the bodies was appropriate. Removing them completely is, however, completely inexcusable and we readily admit that this never should have happened," he said.

Williams said that the photos of those killed at Marikana had not been blocked out because it was not as graphic as the Kabul image.

"Credibility is shot"
A staffer at The Citizen, who asked not to be named, told the Mail & Guardian it was unclear how the photo came to be edited in the way that it was.

However, this was "irrelevant", he said, as the image would still had to have been "okayed" by senior staff.

"It’s a basic, fundamental journalistic ethic that’s been so badly broken and now they want to blame it on a misunderstanding." The staff member said the photographic department in particular has taken exception to the incident.

"The photographic department is feeling that their credibility is shot," he said.