Posted by: vanhoff | February 24, 2009

Obama and Ethics in Media

Most people have not noticed, but it is getting more difficult to recognize reality within photographic journalism. While the mass public soaks up newspaper and broadcast news reports which show stark photography, those of us who know what can be done with today’s software are taking a more careful look. A recent photo during President Barack Obama’s campaign in early 2008 disgusted many as it shows him quite clearly smoking a cigarette. Most people looked at the story it told, but I also saw the affects of over-sharpening and was alerted that the image had been manipulated. As a journalist myself, I have come to scrutinize the images as much as the content. The recent news frenzy over some of the distasteful events in Iraq has made my skepticism even sharper. I have to ask who makes the decisions on how to edit the photo or tape to tell their version of the story, and who decides how many times to show the same photos.

All journalists who use the printed or displayed image to help reinforce a story need to follow a hard line on ethics and honesty. It is bad enough that some events take place. However, to turn and put political spin on the images makes them that much worse. For example, the photograph of Barack Obama smoking a cigarette during his campaign clearly negates ethical standards. For he has admitted to being a smoker, and before he launched his presidential campaign he resolved to quit the habit. By his own admission, he has had a few lapses. Nevertheless, there are hardly any photos of him smoking, largely because his campaign makes great efforts to stop such photos getting out, fearing negative public reaction. For the photograph shown in early 2008 of Obama smoking clearly demonstrates a lack of ethical standards demonstrated by the publishers of the photo. It is entirely within the scope of photojournalism to make color balance corrections, correction of lens distortion, focus adjustments, glare elimination and other modifications considered presentational changes. For the sake of representing honest and accurate information, the editor should avoid anything that will change the actual event or scene as it was captured by the camera. One should never change the image in a way that creates a misleading impression of the events, participants or context.

            Yet the issue was Obama smoking, and many presidents and presidential candidates have smoked. Should we write up how often they drink as well? No; but the real issue is that the aforementioned photo by an anonymous digital photographer placed false light and context on Obama creating a stir within the media and online communities. Therefore, any change to a news photo is a violation of that moment, thus a lie. Big or small, any lie damages your credibility. Kwame Ross took the original photo, the one without him having a cigarette, on Aug. 3, 2004 while then-State Senator Obama met with representatives at the University of Illinois while campaigning to become a U.S. Senator. In closing real photography gives us a window on history; for it allows us to be present at the great events of our times and the past. Photography gets its power from the fact that it represents exactly what the photographer saw through the medium of his lens. The raw reality it depicts, the action, dilemma or discourse comes alive. Therefore, when depicting false light to a subject, ones credibility will be lost with it as well.


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