When a mysterious creature washed up on the shores of Montauk, N.Y., in late July, it became an instant media sensation. After the photograph of the Montauk Monster ran on Manhattan media blog Gawker, local Long Island newspapers were on the story. CNN and Fox News quickly followed, hosting experts to hash out what exactly this unrecognizeable being was. Perhaps a bloated raccoon, as Discover Magazine claimed and Jeff Corwin told Fox? A dead dog that had decayed for weeks? Or, the latest spin: The creature was simply fake, a prop in a movie’s viral marketing campaign, and the media had been duped.
The public's skepticism over whether or not they can believe what they see in photographs isn't unwarranted. Just last week, Beijing organizers admitted to using “previously recorded footage” and computerized images during the Olympic opening ceremony to enhance the quality of fireworks for broadcast on television. A month before that, a doctored photograph of Iranian missiles turned up on front pages across the globe. The alteration—an extra missile added to the image—was outed within hours of the photograph's publication. "With technology, you can make the moment anything you want it to be," says John Long, the ethics committee chair for the National Press Photographers Association. "Our credibility has been stretched in so many ways, so I don't think the public has a great deal of faith in us." He admits the past year hasn't been the best for photojournalism's credibility but doesn't think the future is particularly gloomy—it just puts the burden on the photojournalist to tell the truth, rather than on the photograph itself. "Just like we trust the reporter to represent what they see accurately, we're going to have to develop that same relationship with photographers," he says. NEWSWEEK's Sarah Kliff spoke with Long about why the credibility of photojournalism has fallen, whether or not doctored photographs are more likely to get caught these days, and how photographers can reclaim the public's trust. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: A little over a year ago, you told the American Journalism Review that "The public is losing faith in us. Without credibility, we have nothing; we cannot survive." Where do you think the public faith in photojournalism is now?
John Long: It's pretty low. We definitely haven't gotten any stronger. There seems to be a sense it's bad and I don't know how much worse it can get. A lot of it is self-inflicted; we've made a mess of our professionalism. In the past, we were brought up on the concept that the moment is sacrosanct. It was a hard-and-fast two-dimensional thing. Now you can make the moment anything you want it to be. [Newer photojournalists] are looking at reality in a different way than we did.
What's your take on Beijing's use of computer graphics in the opening ceremony? Do you think NBC should have told its viewers beforehand?
They were deceiving the public and if they were deceiving the public knowingly, then that's a violation of their standards of news judgment. NBC was saying this is an image of what's happening, this is news coverage and we're showing you what is taking place. If it wasn't taking place it was a lie. What else can you call it? NBC would have been totally castigated if they said Michael Phelps got a gold medal and he didn't. That would be a lie. To add fireworks is also a lie. We have to respect the visual and the picture the same way that we respect the word.
Are there any ways to avoid the publication of doctored photos, like the photograph of the Iranian missiles? What could have been done differently in that situation?
Whoever took that photograph and put it on their wire should have checked the source on it better. When you're a photo editor, you look at about 35,000 pictures a day from the wire. You don't have time to say, "I wonder if this one is a mess." You have to be able to trust your sources. If it's coming from [The Associated Press] or Reuters, a reputable news service, you're expecting them to verify or vet or take responsibility for those images. In this case, that's where the problem was. Whoever put this picture up broke down ... they should have been more diligent in checking the sources.
Because of the higher level of scrutiny that photographs face, do you think ones that are doctored are more likely to be caught?
A lot of people are looking for it now. It used to be rare, but now people are wary. As soon as something like the missile photo came out of Iran, people immediately started questioning it. I hate to say it, but a lot of times it's warranted. So there is more scrutiny, but at the same time it's not as easy to catch. It was easier when you just had airbrushing and cut-and-paste. It's harder to see it now because it's so seamless. I hope we're catching most of them, but I have absolutely no idea. You just hope that most of what's going on isn't illicit. I hope we're catching them, but I really just don't know.
How can photojournalists regain the faith of the public, convince them that the photographs they see are truthful and unaltered?
We already did something similar years ago with words and reporters. You can lie with words, but our society evolved an expectation that the reporter would tell the truth as accurately and fairly as they saw it. That's what you do in the business of journalism. We used to believe in the photograph, but now we're going to have to believe that the photographer, like the reporter, is trying to present the moment honestly and accurately.
In the face of better, more advanced photo technology, how do you stay hopeful?
The same way we remain hopeful with writers. We trust people of integrity to be honest in their reporting. So now instead of trusting the photograph, we have to start trusting the photography. We have to trust people who work in this industry to be portraying what they see honestly, in both photographs and in words. That's the only hope we have.
You teach a class in photojournalism at Syracuse University. What do you see among younger photojournalists, in terms of whether or not it's OK to alter photographs?
I see the kids coming up and they do have a desire to be honest, and I think they'll find a way. Kids who are coming up in our profession are going to have to find a way to report honestly, but it's going to be different than what we've done in the past.