Distorted Picture: Thanks to Photoshop, It's Awfully Easy to Manipulate Photographs, as a Number of Recent Scandals Make Painfully Clear. Misuse of the Technology Poses a Serious Threat to Photojournalism's Credibility

By Ricchiardi, Sherry | American Journalism Review, August-September 2007 | Go to article overview

Distorted Picture: Thanks to Photoshop, It's Awfully Easy to Manipulate Photographs, as a Number of Recent Scandals Make Painfully Clear. Misuse of the Technology Poses a Serious Threat to Photojournalism's Credibility


Ricchiardi, Sherry, American Journalism Review


If photo sleuths in Ohio hadn't noticed a pair of missing legs, Allan Detrich still would be cruising to assignments in his sleek blue truck, building his reputation as a photographer extraordinaire at the Toledo Blade. In April, the veteran shooter was forced out of the newsroom in disgrace, igniting a scandal that swept the photojournalism community. Coworkers were mystified about why a highly talented, hard worker who had garnered a slew of awards would cheat.

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Detrich says that for a time, he felt like the most "reviled journalist in the country." Internet forums buzzed about his misdeeds, and photographers attacked him for sullying the profession. Some even sent hateful e-mail messages. "I wasn't the first to tamper with news photos and, unfortunately, I probably won't be the last," he says. "I screwed up. I got caught."

In his case, he says, he was seduced by software that made altering images so easy that "anyone can do it."

With new technology, faking or doctoring photographs has never been simpler, faster or more difficult to detect. Skilled operators truly are like magicians, except they use tools like Photoshop, the leading digital imaging software, to create their illusions.

Detrich, who had worked for the Blade since 1989, manipulated most of the images while alone in his truck, using a cell phone or WiFi for quick and easy transmission to the photo desk. There was little reason for him to return to the newsroom to process images. Until April 5, no one challenged the veracity of his photographs.

The photographer's downfall underscores a disturbing reality: With readily accessible, relatively inexpensive imaging tools (Photoshop sells for around $650) and a low learning curve, the axiom "seeing is believing" never has been more at risk. That has led to doomsday predictions about documentary photojournalism in this country.

"The public is losing faith in us. Without credibility, we have nothing; we cannot survive," says John Long, chairman of the ethics and standards committee of the National Press Photographers Association. Long pushes for stricter newsroom standards with missionary zeal and believes all journalists are tarnished when someone like Detrich falls from grace.

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On June 2, Long, who built a distinguished career in photography at the Hartford Courant before retiring earlier this year, preached to an audience at NPPA's photo summit in Portland, Oregon. If the self-described purist had his way, news photographers would take a vow of abstinence in regard to photo altering; editors would enforce zero-tolerance policies. "The problem is far greater than we fear," Long told the group that afternoon.

There are no statistics on the number of rule-breakers, but indicators within the profession do not bode well for the cherished precept of visual accuracy.

During an NPPA ethics session in Portland, a group of some 50 photographers and photo managers were asked for a show of hands if they believed they had ever worked with peers who routinely crossed ethical boundaries. Nearly every arm flew into the air. "That was a scary thing to see," says Long, who was on the panel. Ethical breaches were the topic of conversation at coffee breaks and during presentations at the photo summit.

Many of the offending photos and illustrations discussed in Portland appear in a rogues' gallery posted by computer scientist Hany Farid (www.cs.dartmouth.edu/farid/research/digitaltampering).

Among the dozens he highlights are Time and Newsweek covers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, images in the Charlotte Observer and Newsday, and a famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln that was discovered to be less than accurate.

The Dartmouth College professor uses the term "digital forensics" to describe pioneering methods to detect image altering. …

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