Doctoring the Truth

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A front page became headline news last week when the New York Daily News ran a photo showing an injured woman lying in a pool of blood after the recent marathon bombings. But it was the cause of the blood and not the blood itself that was controversial. There is no visible wound in the photo. This led to allegations that the paper had erased the gory injury on the woman’s leg that was present in other published versions of the same image.

The picture, taken by John Tlumackie of The Boston Globe, was one of many widely circulated images capturing the immediate aftermath of the explosions. Its apparent doctoring has caused anger among fellow journalists. Charles Apple, the author of the blog post which brought it to the world’s attention wrote, “If you can’t stomach the gore, don’t run the photo. Period.”

The words of the National Press Photographers Association have been echoed by many.“Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context,” the ethics code reads. “Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”

People from inside Daily News reportedly said that the decision to doctor the image came from above and that many staff were embarrassed by the image. However, the Daily News spokesperson Ken Frydman later stated that the paper stood by their choice. 

“The Daily News edited that photo out of sensitivity to the victims, the families and the survivors,” he said. “There were far more gory photos that the paper chose not to run, and frankly I think the rest of the media should have been as sensitive as the Daily News.”

The British newspapers have come under fire too in the last few months for insensitive front pages with The Daily Mail lining the racks with pictures of a gurning Mick Philpott under the headline “Vile Product of Welfare UK”. The Sun was skewered for confusing its front page with page 3 in what was called “lechery over a corpse” when it printed a huge image of Reeva Steenkamp in a bikini. The headline could have been lifted from a bad thriller movie: “3 shots. Screams. Silence. . . 2 more shots”.

By their very nature, front pages are dangerous, often having to tell the most unforgiving story in a few very large words and one picture. Bound up with these problems are the issues of sale; it is the main advert for the paper and so the image is seen as particularly commercial. The cover photograph sells, and the contents of it are seen as sold with it, whether it is depicting a half-naked woman or a death – or, in the Sun’s case, both. The image is often not studied – even the best ones are judged by how quickly they make people want to open the paper and thereby remove the picture from their sight. 

Hideously misguided front covers which have been studied in recent months include Bloomberg Businessweek’s illustration of the housing bubble, with a cast of black and His- panic caricatures grabbing for cash. The cover says “The Great American Housing Rebound. Flips. No look bids. 300 percent returns. What could possibly go wrong?”

The image joins our front cover Hall of Infamy with the 2008 edition of The New Yorker, which cartoons Obama the Terrorist fist-bumping Michelle who wearsan AK-A7 slung over her shoulder as a portrait of Osama Bin Laden hangs on the wall and an American flag burning away in the grate.

The cartoon, called “The Politics of Fear”, was satirical and hoped to hold a mirror up to ridiculous sensibilities about the White House. The intentions of front pages do, however, matter very little. They are, crucially, visuals; they do not get captions explaining political leanings or parody.         

If we lived in a world where the Philippines issue of FHM didn’t show a white model surrounded by black models with the tag “Stepping out of the shadows”, or if Vogue’s Shape issue had thought twice about having basketball player LeBron James baring his teeth and grabbing tiny white model Gisele Bundchen around the waist in what has become known as the ‘King Kong’ edition, then The New Yorker might have been safe in thinking that everyone would get the joke. But then again, if everyone thought it was a joke it wouldn’t have been on the front page of The New Yorker.

While the aesthetics of a front page can accidentally raise eyebrows (as did the devil horns that TIME’s ‘M’ famously gave Bill Clinton by a bad image placing), what provokes outrage is the intentional hours spent colouring something in, photoshopping something out. Whether you are TIME magazine manipulating a mugshot of OJ Simpson to make his skin darker during his 1994 trial, or the Daily News drawing back in someone’s trouser leg, deliberate manipulation is unethical, like lying in a written piece.

The image is upsetting and the Daily News were obviously concerned about broadcasting it to all. There is no watershed or parental warning on front pages. But the point of a photograph of the aftermath of bombings is to show the destruction caused.

 

If the Daily News wanted to pay a sensitive tribute which acknowledged the trauma without any wounds then they should not have used the image. They could have followed the example set by the front cover of TIME after the 9/11 bombings which showed a sombre outline of the two towers. But if they wanted to show what happened, they should have done just that.

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