Photoshopped-train image leaves cautionary tale for media

Dec 17 2011 - 8:43am

Images

Composite photo illustration courtesy of James Parks 
The FrontRunner train appears to cross a bridge at the same time as the Union Pacific steam engine No. 844 travels on a lower track in this composite of two photos (top left and right) taken 10 minutes apart near Ogden on Nov. 26.
Andy Howell
Composite photo illustration courtesy of James Parks 
The FrontRunner train appears to cross a bridge at the same time as the Union Pacific steam engine No. 844 travels on a lower track in this composite of two photos (top left and right) taken 10 minutes apart near Ogden on Nov. 26.
Andy Howell

On Sunday, Nov. 27, we ran a Page One photo of the FrontRunner commuter train passing over Union Pacific steam engine No. 844 as both approached Ogden.

The iconic image, submitted by a trusted contributor, captured the past and present of the evolution of the locomotive in American society.

The photo generated a number of comments from readers who were impressed with the ability of the photographer to capture such a moment in time with a single shot.

Well, the image was actually two separate photos taken minutes apart and combined into one shot.

That's right, unknown to us at the time, it was a Photoshopped image. The photo represented an event that didn't happen.

For that, I apologize to readers for what was a news deception that goes against the principles of photojournalism.

However, the story behind how we ended up using a Photoshopped image as a news photo is more nuanced.

I believe the photographer did not set out to deceive us or the public. The end result was more a product of miscommunication and a naive misunderstanding on the photographer's part.

It is also a cautionary tale for us and other newspapers as we rely more and more on citizen journalists and contributors.

James Parks is a local longtime train enthusiast. We have used his photos in the past and published several of his articles, so when he sent us the photo on the same day as the event, the weekend editor didn't doubt its authenticity.

As a train aficionado, James saw an opportunity to capture the two trains crossing at once. He noticed the published schedules indicated they would be arriving in Ogden around the same time. He scouted out a location, finding just the right spot where the FrontRunner tracks went over the UP tracks.

Then he waited.

The trains passed his vantage point 10 minutes apart.

For Parks, though, that was a distinction without a difference.

He shot separate photos of both trains and didn't think twice about overlaying the photos to create the composite image.

He said he had read a column of mine where I explained that photojournalists try to tell a story with their images. To him, combining the photos was just a way of telling the story.

"I was prepared to get that story on a perfect morning for it to unfold, and the possibility of multiple photos was figured into the vantage point, sky condition and lighting," he told me in an email.

"When I was done with the 10-minute shoot, I could not wait to get the images on the computer and was very excited about the finished composite."

James considered the photo an example of time-lapse photography, not an altered image.

"To me, it was just a 10-minute gap," he said in a phone conversation. "I did not think I was doing anything against the rules."

One of the principles of journalism is to never deceive the audience.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states: "Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations."

The big mistake James made was not telling us the image was a composite. If we had known, we might have run it as a photo illustration and clearly identified it as such, explaining in the caption how it was created.

James is sorry he didn't tell us at the time, and others later, that the image was a composite.

"I see now, after reading a bit about who you are, and some conversation with you, that if I was truly absent pride or guile, that I would have added that detail to the submission," he said.

"In fact, I continued the smoke screen with friends who commented on the nice photo, the good fortune of the opportunity and the story it told ... but who never dared ask the big question regarding post-processing techniques."

So when he received a congratulatory email from the Standard-Examiner's visuals editor, Robert Johnson, last week, James decided to call and set the record straight.

Robert, who did not work the weekend the photo ran, had his suspicions the photo might have been altered, but he could find no evidence in close examination of the image.

James truly did a good job.

I think the lesson for us is that sincere motives still can lead to bad journalism.

We've been conditioned to believe that deception is intentional, spurred by selfish motives. However, this case shows that we need do a better job of educating the public as to the role and ethics of journalism if we want them to be regular contributors.

The future of interactive journalism means that our role involves different ways of monitoring submissions to assure they adhere to ethical standards.

James assures me that if we had asked him if the image was Photoshopped, he would have told us. Our role in policing content could be as simple as asking the right questions.

Andy Howell is executive editor. Reach him at ahowell@standard.net.

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