Somewhere, a photo editor should be in the doghouse

 

So there I was, browsing a New York Times photo slideshow about custom-built, slightly absurd doghouses… when something in one photo caught my eye:

This is a screenshot of the New York Times’ doghouse slideshow.

Do you see it?

The first thing I noticed was the scale of the doghouse. It dwarfs that dog.

Then I noticed the dog appeared to be floating and had no shadow. Then I saw that the dog was lit from a light source that was not cast onto the doghouse. Then I knew it: The dog had been Photoshopped into the photo.

(And, it appears, the various foliage in front of the doghouse was Photoshopped, too.)

After confirming with my editor Eileen that I wasn’t crazy and seeing things, I tweeted it out — and got a lot of responses:

 


I’ll elaborate more on my own thoughts about this, and hopefully that can be a starting point for any discussion.

As a recent Missouri photojournalism graduate, I have sat through enough lectures about ethics — and even given two “ethics in photojournalism” presentations to high school students — to know that my Photoshopping anything in or out of a photo is the fastest way for me to get fired. Photojournalists aren’t in this business to make gorgeous, perfect pictures (although, it’s nice when we’re able to). Our job is to show truth. Even if we have to stage that “truth” sometimes — in a studio or anywhere — it’s still a “real picture.” Granted, it’s a “real picture” that we need to identify as a “photo illustration” or a similar term in our captions, but every single object, person, lighting element, whatever, that was in our frame when we held down the shutter button was actually there. And was real. Not something that we added in after the picture was made.

Photojournalists and photo editors have to hold themselves to pretty stringent ethics guidelines. If we fail to do so, we give the public a pretty damning reason not to trust our pictures anymore.

Now for this silly doghouse photo.

Yes, it’s a photo of a doghouse. No, it’s not breaking news — or even news. Yes, it appears to be a submitted photo, not one taken by a New York Times staff photographer or anyone claiming to be a photojournalist. But those same stringent ethics guidelines to which we hold ourselves must also apply to the photos we publish. The New York Times has never claimed to be a catalog or purely advertising space; it’s a newspaper of record, and whoever processed this photo and put it into a slideshow should have known better.

A news organization’s editors need to be able to stand completely behind all decisions they make, and that includes ridiculous photos of even more ridiculous doghouses. Does The New York Times stand behind that obviously false, obviously altered photo? I sure hope not.

The photo department here at The York Daily Record/Sunday News has also received similarly Photoshopped photos as submissions. We publish a lot of community news, so it’s natural that we receive a lot of group photos sent in by various organizations. Because humans are humans, sometimes certain people can’t be available when their group photo was taken — so, the photo is taken, those certain people are Photoshopped in and the organization emails us the photo.

We don’t use those photos. What kind of an honest news organization would we be, if we didn’t hold all photos that we publish to the same stringent ethics guidelines?

One ethics policy should apply to all photos. Period.

 

UPDATE: 12:25 p.m., 6/29/12 –

Thanks to a tweet from Adam Penenburg, we now have a copy of a 2009 email sent to New York Times freelance photographers regarding digitally manipulated photos. Here’s an excerpt:

Images in our pages, in the paper or on the Web, that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions).

In some sections, and in magazines, where a photograph is used to serve the same purposes as a commissioned drawing or painting – as an illustration of an idea or situation or as a demonstration of how a device works, etc. – it must always be clearly labeled as a photo illustration. This does not apply to portraits or still-lifes (photos of food, shoes, etc.), but it does apply to other kinds of shots in which we have artificially arranged people or things, as well as to collages, montages, and photographs that have been digitally altered.

Well, a few things are certain: The doghouse photo was digitally altered. It is not an image that should be classified as a “photo illustration.” It’s a fairly photorealistic photo/rendering that is identified as a “model picture.”

So, what’s The Times to do?

Adam also tweeted that the New York Times ethics policy includes statements about digitally altered photos and “doesn’t give model shots a pass.” I’ve conducted a few text searches, but have found nothing specific in either this company ethics policy or this “ethical journalism” handbook (PDF) from 2004.

If anyone knows of a more specific New York Times ethics copy floating around in cyberspace, give me a holler and I’ll take a look.

 

UPDATE: 1 p.m., 6/29/12 –

Another round of thanks to Adam, who found the New York Times ethics policy’s section on integrity, which I missed in my searches. Here we go:

Photography and Images. Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions). Adjustments of color or gray scale should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction, analogous to the “burning” and “dodging” that formerly took place in darkroom processing of images. Pictures of news situations must not be posed. In the cases of collages, montages, portraits, fashion or home design illustrations, fanciful contrived situations and demonstrations of how a device is used, our intervention should be unmistakable to the reader, and unmistakably free of intent to deceive. Captions and credits should further acknowledge our intervention if the slightest doubt is possible. The design director, a masthead editor or the news desk should be consulted on doubtful cases or proposals for exceptions.

There we have it. With the official ethics policy statement at hand, let’s take another look at this doghouse situation:

  1. I think it’s pretty clear that whoever submitted the image meant for it to “depict reality,” which then makes the image in absolute violation of unethical altering. (Examples of an image that would attempt to show a similar doghouse without depicting reality would be an architectural rendering, which are not at all photorealistic.)
  2. Does this doghouse photo fall under a “home design illustration”? Probably, but not in a “photo illustration” way — and it’s not as if a New York Times photographer was present to “intervene” and make the picture look prettier. This was a quick job on the computer, probably somewhere in Ohio.
  3. The caption does call it “a model picture,” but nowhere is credit to be found. Also, I’m still not letting the “model picture” designation off the hook here. See No. 1, “photorealistic.”

Seems to me somebody made a goof in letting that picture slip through.

Again, it’s just a doghouse photo. As Andy pointed out to me on Facebook, it’s not as if this is “a trend that they were doing, rather than — most likely — something that was slapped together because they wanted more of an online component.”

But as I pointed out to Andy, “They could’ve easily done without that photo. There are plenty of other silly doghouses in that slideshow. So, why include an obviously false photo? They could have/should have just left it out or requested an unaltered photo, and we’d be none the wiser.”

That’s still a statement I stand by.

10 Responses to Somewhere, a photo editor should be in the doghouse

  1. I don’t see this as an ethical violation at all – but it’s a piss poor photo no matter how to cut it. It’s a hack Photoshop job and for that reason alone, shouldn’t have been published.

    Does it reflect poorly on the NYT? For a moment. Does it say something about the quality of the manufacturer? You bet.

    • Chris Dunn says:

      Hey Jason! Here’s why I see it as a very clear ethical violation: That dog wasn’t there when the picture of the house was taken. That house wasn’t there when the picture of the dog was taken. That’s not a real, true photo. Whoever slapped the dog in front of the house probably had good intentions, but he/she is still lying to the viewers of the final product by claiming that the dog was in fact in front of the house when the picture was made. It’s a fake photo. Fake = not ethical.

      • But if the image was provided by the company, aren’t they at liberty to doctor the photo in any way they see fit? If the image is used for advertising use (which you can argue was the intent here), the rules are different.

        I had a career in rights and clearances – and this sort of thing is completely within bounds and in no way a violation of ethics.

        Every other image in that slideshow is captioned with a photo credit to the NYT – this one is not. You can’t claim a violation of journalistic ethics on a product shot submitted by the manufacturer.

        Good discussion, BTW. :)

        • Chris Dunn says:

          Sure, the company is at liberty to doctor the photo — but the newspaper is not at liberty to use the doctored photo, since it’s bound by its own ethics policy. I would caution against arguing that this slideshow was intended as advertising: Yes, there’s product information about various types of doghouses, but it accompanies a lighthearted feature article about how dog owners take doghouses more seriously than the dogs do. And again, this photo is in clear conflict with the Times’ ethics policy, which I outlined in the updates.

          To the contrary, there are other photos in that slideshow that are not credited, and only a few of them were actually taken by a photojournalist.

  2. Jason Plotkin says:

    Very well done. My only question is….do you love the NYT so much that you spend time looking through their slideshow of doghouses?

  3. Brian says:

    Or does she love custom doghouses so much that she spends time looking for photo slideshows of them?

    The “model photo” defense is weak because no where does it identify who took the photo. So “model photo” could mean a photo of the model doghouse, not “an illustration of what this thing would look like in nature and with a dog in front of it.”

    There are worse ethical decisions, but this was just stupid to go ahead with it. Seems like the decision to simply put things online signals to them that there is no responsibility for the rules.

  4. Randy Parker says:

    I see the NYT describes this as a “model photo.” I suspect that is their way of acknowledging this is not a true representation. And I think this photo was generated in software used to design such doghouses. You can buy do-it-yourself landscape software for such things as well.
    At the YDR, we use the phrase, “photo illustration” to explain such things. Does that get the job done better than “model photo”?
    (Randy Parker is managing editor of the York Daily Record and ydr.com.)

    • Chris Dunn says:

      The thing about photo illustrations is, they typically are “real” photos. Like Paul’s studio shot of a really gooey grilled cheese sandwich — that’s a photo illustration, but it’s still a real photo that Paul took in the studio.

      A guy on Twitter raised the possibility that the doghouse itself isn’t real, which would support your idea about software-generated image. If that truly is the case, then…

      a) The resulting image should not attempt to be so photorealistic. I think running an architectural rendering — which are obviously never photographic in appearance — would have been a perfectly suitable alternative.

      b) The NYT shouldn’t have used such a photorealistic picture.

  5. Erin says:

    The phrase “model photo” is not clear to a general reader. Not that “photo illustration” is much better, but at least it’s a vaguely standard statement in journalism used to describe things that have been created for illustrative purposes. What really should be written is something like, “This is an example of what your doghouse could look like, but we couldn’t afford to hire a model dog so we faked it for you.”

    And speaking from a purely technical standpoint – holy hell, whoever photoshopped it needs to go back to school or be fired. Even for ‘PR purposes,’ that’s a terrible job. There’s more than one light source OUTSIDE! Did we gain another sun since I last studied astronomy?

    My husband adds, “I’ve seen people posting on Woot do a better job than that.”

    Touché.

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A picture may be worth a thousand words, but there is often more to say about a great photograph. The York Daily Record's award-winning visual staff offers a peek behind the lens and into the process of capturing, editing and publishing their most interesting photographs, video stories and more.
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