Phototruth or Photofiction? Ethics and Media Imagery in the Digital Age

Phototruth or Photofiction? Ethics and Media Imagery in the Digital Age

Phototruth or Photofiction? Ethics and Media Imagery in the Digital Age

Phototruth or Photofiction? Ethics and Media Imagery in the Digital Age


This text examines the use of images in journalistic contexts and the manipulation of these images to accomplish varying objectives. It provides a framework for critical discussion among professionals, educators, students, and concerned consumers of newspapers, magazines, online journals, and other nonfiction media. It also offers a method of assessing the ethics of mass-media photos, which will help visual journalists to embrace new technologies while preserving their credibility.

Phototruth or Photofiction? also:

• recounts the invention of photography and how it came to be accorded an extraordinary degree of trust;

• details how photos were staged, painted, composited and otherwise faked, long before digital technology;

• lists contemporary image-altering products and practices;

• details many examples of manipulated images in nonfiction media and lists rationales offered in defense of them;

• explains how current ethical principles have been derived;

• lays groundwork for an ethical protocol by explaining conventions of taking, processing, and publishing journalistic photos; and

• offers tests for assessing the appropriateness of altered images in non-fiction media.

Each chapter is followed by "Explorations" designed to facilitate classroom discussion and to integrate into those interactions the students' own perceptions and experiences. The book is intended for students and others interested in the manipulation of images.


James D. Kelly

It has been 20 years since computers were first used to process photographic imagery in the mass media. Almost since the first day, photojournalists have expressed concern about the computer's ability to alter the realistic imagery captured by their cameras. The ethics of digital imaging have increasingly dominated discussions among journalists—first the photographers, then their editors, and finally their managers.

The chemical photograph with its imperceptible transition from black to white through an infinite number of grays seemed for more than a century so easy to understand. A photo was reality. It was a scientific document. We could understand how lenses worked and could predict how chemical reactions would occur, and we believed the photograph was as objective as mathematics and as clear a view as glass provides.

Now, at the start of the 21st Century, photography has passed from the confident realm of chemistry to the ethereal world of electronics. For more and more people, a photograph is simply a bit of software, a long series of 0's and 1's that are more like an idea than a crystal of salt or the fibers of the paper you now hold in your hand. Indeed, you cannot hold a digital image at all. While a negative is a thing, a JPEG file is more a formula than anything tangible. Each formula is built from essentially the same components— sequences of binary bits. Rearrange the bits a little and you have a spreadsheet of numbers. Rearrange them again and you have a poem by Longfellow.

This most postmodern of phenomena is generally called convergence. It seems that everything can be represented by a formula that a computer can read to generate a semblance of the original. A human voice is rendered as a string of digits and emanates from the silvery surface of a CD. Or the formula could be a picture of the singer's face, or the words she used to compose the song, or the sales figures for that little disk of plastic. The direct relationship between the media that stores the creative work and the work itself is gone now. A negative is not a piece of acetate. A musical score is not paper. A painting is not canvas.

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