How (Un)Ethical is Our Design?

Yesterday, my daughter and I discussed a recent New York Times article regarding criticism of an Obama cover photo.

The photo was used by the weekly news magazine The Economist for its June 19 issue. It shows Obama standing, head bowed, hands on hips, with an oil rig in the background. And he’s alone. It’s a dramatic shot evoking a strong message.

Turns out, in the original photo, Obama isn’t alone. Reuters photographer Larry Downing shot the image with two people standing alongside Obama, participating in an apparent conversation.

The Economist’s decision to digitally remove these two has caused a bit of ruckus. Some, including Reuters, feel altering the image has also altered the message.

My daughter’s and my discussion was interesting.

As a visual communications professional, I surmised the magazine wanted to convey a sense of isolation, that Obama is alone in his responsibility of the Gulf oil mess. The Economist’s editor claims not, but given the headline “Obama v. BP” and the story’s content, it’s hard to imagine otherwise. Whatever their motive, editing the extras from the photo creates a very striking composition.

My daughter viewed the issue from a journalistic side. As an attorney interested in government and current affairs, she felt altering the image was a misrepresentation of the event as it occurred. It did not convey the truth.

With today’s sophisticated editing software, this conflict of ethics becomes commonplace. We define graphic design as the use of words and images to visually communicate a message. Photojournalism, on the other hand, is the use of photography to tell a news story. The question we must then consider is how blurred can the line between the two become?

When does editing a photo become unethical?

Is editing software a threat to photojournalism?

Is a magazine cover a journalistic piece or an artistic piece?

How do photojournalism, advertising and art differ, and how should editing ethics apply to each?

What’s your opinion?

9 thoughts on “How (Un)Ethical is Our Design?”

  1. I don’t see the big deal. What if the photographer had taken a picture of only Obama? How would that be different than cropping out the other people?

  2. It is a big deal. Obama was meeting with a Coast Guard official and a local government official, not exactly brainless people in this situation. He wasn’t alone in his observation of the oil problem.

    A good photojournalist shoots an image that tells the complete story of what’s happening. Had he shot Obama by himself, he wouldn’t have told the whole story.

  3. Considering it’s the cover photo, there’s more to consider. The cover has to attract the viewer’s attention. Once it has that attention, the story can cover the details of the event.

    The edited photo is a much stronger than the original. Compositionally, it’s spot on. It puts the focus on Obama, and that’s what the story is about – how Obama is dealing with the Gulf oil crisis.

  4. I don’t think the fact that it’s a cover photo changes whether it’s misleading or not. Although I admittedly haven’t read the article, it seems like this cover is being used to portray the President being helpless and alone, whereas the original photo depicts something much different. I also think a news magazine (or photojournalism in general) has a different ethical obligation in terms of how it edits the photos, whether on the cover or in the article. A misleading headline wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) be excused simply because it’s on the cover and is used to grab the readers attention, neither should a photo.

  5. This same thing came up a few weeks ago. Outside magazine photoshopped a slogan onto Lance Armstrong’s blank T-shirt. He was very upset. I’m sure Obama is too. I think all forms of photo manipulation are unethical in professional publications, if they skew the reality in any way.

  6. From a creative’s point of view, I’m wondering if The Economist sought permission to edit the photo? They obviously must have purchased rights to use it, but if Reuters has a “strict policy against modifying, removing, adding to or altering any of its photographs without first obtaining the permission,” seems like The Economist could be in trouble.

    However, the Reuters quote in the NYT doesn’t specifically say The Economist did NOT have their permission. If that’s the case, then Reuters is as much the dirty editor as The Economist, because they approved the alteration.

  7. Terri, your comment is so true. The problem is we, the viewers have no idea when we can or cannot trust a photograph. I think most of us have no clue how much editing goes into every photo before it’s printed.

    When I studied Photoshop we not only learned to remove blemishes, but to make people look younger, skinnier, healthier… Our assignments required us to completely dismantle an image and rebuild it in other ways. Last year, I toured Quad Graphics and talked with photo editors. That’s their only job, to prepare the photos used in a story. If they do this 8+ hours a day, imagine how expert they become.

    What I never knew until studying photography is that photo editing has been going on as long as there has been photography. Shooting the image is only half the skill of a photographer. The other half is in the dark room of the old days, or in Photoshop of nowadays.

  8. I like the comment someone made for the NYT’s article. He said editing the photo makes Obama look sad and dejected, like he doesn’t have the support of the American people. But if you look at the real photo, Obama’s head is down because he’s listening to people who happen to be shorter than he is. This makes him look caring, concerned and smart enough to seek advice from professionals.

    This person’s comment really emphasizes how the media shapes our opinions. They really are gatekeepers to events as they really happen.


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