Teaching Examples

Allan Detrich resigns after photo fallout
April 10, 2007, 1:11 pm
Filed under: ethics, journalism, photojournalism

Allan Detrich, a 25-veteran of photojournalism, has resigned from his job at the Toledo Blade newspaper. This is a sad story, and I feel more compassion for Detrich (whom I have never met) than anything else.

His story will serve as a cautionary tale for our students for many years.

The moral of the story is that in a 24/7 digital world, a journalist is always one click away from a serious error that would put false information before the public.

Online, we can correct the error rapidly. But in print, an error remains fixed in time. Either way, the manipulation or falsehood will be noticed, and in most cases, at least one head will have to roll. It’s not an occasion for rejoicing or smugness. It does, however, make a public claim to journalism’s commitment to truth and accuracy.

Update (April 15): From the Toledo Blade today:

An intensive investigation of Mr. Detrich’s work, conducted by Nate Parsons, The Blade’s director of photography, found that since January of this year, Mr. Detrich submitted 947 photographs for publication, of which 79 had been digitally altered….

The changes Mr. Detrich made included erasing people, tree limbs, utility poles, electrical wires, electrical outlets, and other background elements from photographs. In other cases, he added elements such as tree branches and shrubbery.

What I wrote earlier about compassion? No longer true. Now I’m just disgusted.

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13 Comments so far
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Detrich’s resignation feels Draconian, but perhaps it will serve as a strong cautionary tale for future journalists. I know I’ll certainly use Detrich’s story when I’m doing my once-per-semester “don’t steal stuff, don’t change stuff” speech.

One thing I find curious about the whole incident is this:

“The photographer’s explanation is that he altered the photo for his personal files and inadvertently transmitted the wrong picture for publication.”

I’m not a photographer, so I don’t know typical protocol, but what’s the benefit of keeping an archived version of an altered photo? Could it be used for marketing purposes?

Comment by Mac Slocum

Don’t you think you guys are taking yourselves a little too seriously? If all journalism was held to this standard, North American presses would groan to a halt tomorrow and CNN would be delivered straight to Hades in a conflagration of hypocrisy.

A pair of legs was cloned out of an image and that image, perhaps accidentally, was used for a news story. The legs did not feature in the story. The legs were not part of the story. Most people didn’t even see the missing legs — I didn’t until it was pointed out. The missing legs were no more material than color variations press to press. For this, a journalist of 25 years was publicly sacrificed.

Who is the victim? Certainly not truth. Not in any measurable way.

I could pick up any paper from the same date and pick out a dozen examples of bad journalism ( although perhaps good business ) that make a material difference to the information readers absorb. Misleading headlines, selective quoting, misrepresentative quoting, editorial bias, deadline induced regurgitation, sensationalism, politicians caught in mid sentence looking like dimwits and criminals. I could go on but I think you get the point.

I understand that photojournalists need to document and they need to limit ( within the bounds established by the dollar and cents part of the business ) the amount of interpretation they apply so that we see something close to what was happening. I also understand that ‘zero tolerance’ is in vogue now and that it is seen by many as a proxy for ethical behavior.

This is, however, ridiculous. The consequences have no rational relationship to the act.

It seems to me, that we have become sanctimonious prigs addled by American Idol and worse. We pretend to hold others to an almost impossibly high standard while secretly cheering the misfortune of those caught in a mistake. In an environment like that, what other choice do news executives have?

Comment by KevinG

I agree, “keving,” that worse sins are committed in journalism, probably every day.

But with the ease of Photoshopping any photograph to become almost anything you want it to be — and with consumers knowing this full well because they do it themselves — it’s important to hold this line in photojournalism.

The typical instruction I have heard from photojournalism instructors is: Do not even erase an electrical wire from an otherwise perfect blue sky.

It’s not because the wire means anything in reality, in the world. It’s because the instant you erase the wire, the picture is no longer photojournalism, but only photography — open to question, mashable, and no longer true.

Yeah, it is a high horse.

But it’s the only horse we have.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

Yeah, it is a high horse.
But it’s the only horse we have.

Is it?

Respectfully, I think at best, it is just one of those irrational anomalies.

If it was a matter of a high standard maintained at a high cost because it was crucial to the credibility of news, I’d happily concede the point and wish for taller horses.

Do you suppose consumers of news are at all confused. I’ve often marveled at the way PJ’s could transform a crowd of 20 into a mob of indeterminate but apparently huge size by carefully selecting a focal length and position. I’ve often marveled at their ability to take the photos that didn’t have any of the other 20 photographers at the scene. I’m pretty sure I understand the editing process. I’ve seen Nachtwey ( a photographer of integrity ) crop, dodge and burn more emotion into his images ( but not in all contexts ). All of these things materially changed the way the real situation was represented.

If journalism was set on protecting it’s integrity, it would focus on the larger problems.

None the less, advice that says don’t alter images in any way is good advice. It is a completely inadequate prophylactic for the industry, but demonstrably, it is good advice for the individual practitioner.

Comment by KevinG

I’m sorry but it’s NOT “a high horse”. 
This is the lowest of possible hobby horses. If we can’t set a standard in our industry that forbids the outright digital alteration of images, then all the other reasonable debates of lens selection, editing, and toning – journalistic choices that we make every day are worthless. Reasonable people will always debate the editorial choices that newspapers make every day. But to argue that because there are mistakes made every day somehow excuses what Detrich did makes no sense. This is so basic to what we do as news photographers. Let’s have heated and great discussions about what newspapers do well and badly. Defend Detrich the person if you know him, but let’s not defend the act. 
-Will Yurman

Comment by Will

This might be purely semantics — low, high, or “hobby” horse.

What I mean is, you can’t say truth is a “low” standard. It’s basic, but always to tell the truth, never to lie — any absolute is a pretty high horse, I think. If it were just: “Tell the truth as often as you can manage it,” then that would be a low standard — a lowered bar, to switch metaphors.

We do have a standard in journalism that forbids the outright digital alteration of images. And that doesn’t seem so very “high” — no deletions, no additions. Cropping is okay. Dodging and burning, contrast, levels — all that is okay. But no erasing. And no pasting. Yep, that’s the hobby horse.

But truth, I would argue, is not a mere hobby horse.

So did Detrich resign because of erasing? Or because of truth? If it had never been published as a representation of what is true, there would have been no fallout.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

Maybe it’s just semantics, but I have read a lot of comments on this particular case where people argue that what Detrich did was no big deal. And I find that troubling.

Basic rules of journalism such as ‘don’t digitally remove elements from your images’ should be basic and elementary. This isn’t about ‘Truth’ it’s about facts.

I’m a little disturbed that he would find pleasure in ‘improving’ his images, even for just personal use – it seems contradictory to what news photographers try to do every day. But however it happened, I think transmitting that digitally altered image to his newspaper, on deadline, for publication, crossed a very low bar.

I think when we argue that it wasn’t so bad, that worse sins get committed in journalism every day, that the legs were not part of the story, we denigrate every authentic picture out there.

Comment by Will

I wonder, what is the practical difference between digitally removing the legs and cropping them out either in camera or later?

What relevant distinction, in this case, is there between truth and facts?

Comment by KevinG

Well, cropping the legs would have also cropped one of the jerseys, as well as trees grass etc. The process is one of editing – choosing what information to present. We could then argue whether the choices of lens, frame, point of view, and such fairly represented the scene in a ‘truthful’ way. Digitally removing the legs is changing the facts.

In this case, in a very public way, people see that newspapers are willing to alter facts to fit their personal vision – People see one paper with the legs in the photo and then the Blade without the legs. It reinforces the notion that people can’t trust what they see and read in their newspaper. Without that trust we lose an important reason for people to read our newspaper. Next thing you know, I’m out of a job 🙂

Comment by Will

Will has hit the nail squarely on the head.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

I’m guessin that this hasn’t been updated since The Blade published the findings on this. Detrich is a serial cloner of photographs and is a disgrace to the profession that I have worked in since the mid 80’s. His initial lie that he didn’t know what the editors were talking about quickly changed to the personal editing reason and then to I quit. The photograph is a part of the historical record. If in fact this was for his own use would he then explain it to everyone who saw it in his office? Who would know that it was just a little white lie once he is dead and gone? Photojournalist should hold to hard and fast rules that allow them to correct a photograph as much as they could in an old school darkroom. Granted, I’ve seen darkroom techs do some magic that almost rivals digital, but changing the situation just isn’t done. Im amazed that someone believes that an altered photo dosen’t in anyway alter the truth. If a writer changes a quote is that OK? Just because you might not like an element in a photograph dosen’t mean you have a right to change it. The really stupid part of his actions with the softball photograph was that he was shoulder to shoulder with other photographers who shot almost identical photographs. The difference is that they didn’t alter it because it was what it was. They pointed it out and they have their jobs. He tried to change reality and instead he got a career change. I’m sure that in in his new career as a storm chaser he’ll see plenty of storms even if they are not there. http://www.nppa.org/news_and_events/news/2007/04/toledo05.html

Comment by mhcraig

Here is more on Detrich. http://www.bladevent.com/archives/416

Another point. If he allows himself to alter minor details how can we believe him on major details. He was Ohio photographer of the year several times. Is it because he was good or was it because the second place guy didn’t alter his photos?

Comment by mhcraig

mhcraig, you are completely right: If a photojournalist erases or pastes in ANYTHING, even a little thing, s/he ceases to be a photoJOURNALIST and becomes … well, a liar. A manipulator. And after that, you can never trust him again.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

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