We had three incidents involving news photographs in the past few weeks and they are all disturbing. They might make us wonder now if what we are seeing in usually reliable places is really what we are seeing. It is all about trust.
The most recent came to light Monday when a Hasidic newspaper in Brooklyn, New York admitted printing the now famous picture of President Obamas' team in the situation room at the White House watching the Osama Bin Laden operation without one of the key players. The newspaper used electronic trickery to eliminate the image of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It's a religious thing, apparently, for some ultra orthodox Jewish publishers. One publisher in Minnesota told CNN that there for a time it was routine to just blur the images of women in photos, now they are just eliminated. The publisher of the New York paper claims he had a right to change history by doctoring the photo, but later issued an apology to the White House and the State Department. It's interesting the newspaper did not apologize to its' readers. They were the ones who were tricked into a false image of history.
The next photo controversy happened last week during the Republican presidential candidate debate in South Carolina. Fox News sponsored the debates and set up the rules for photographers to cover the event. The Fox organizers decided that it did not want photographers snapping pictures during the debate, so it said the photographers could only be in the room at the start of the debate, as the candidates walked on stage and then at the end after the last answer. The Associated Press objected saying Fox was trying to limit access to legitimate coverage of a news event. In this case however, it was a private event and Fox had the last word. The AP decided to boycott the event and newsrooms around the country that pay for AP service were left with no coverage of the first GOP debate of the election season.
This incident contrasts with the rules and control the White House has placed on news photographers and, it is interesting, that the Associated Press didn't seem to have much trouble with it for years. It was revealed that when the President makes a “live” TV statement from one of the rooms at the White House, photographers are not allowed to take pictures. They must wait until he is finished and the TV cameras are turned off and then they “stage” another photograph for the newspaper and website photographers of the President pretending to talk at the microphone. It is clearly an ethical breach that many journalists are calling just plain wrong.
When we see a picture in a legitimate newspaper, or on a real news website we expect it to be real, not doctored. When we see video of a news event on your favorite TV news channel, it must not be staged or contrived. It is about trust and the promise we make as journalists to those we serve. It is clear that Brooklyn newspaper will now have some work to do to rebuild trust. It is clear that professional photojournalists must be allowed full access to record history. But, it is also clear that even the White House has an obligation to show us history as it happens and not “stage” events. We need to be able to trust what we see.