Alter a news photo? No, never

CHARLES TOWN – Photoshop makes it easy to “fix” photos, but at the Spirit, we do not publish news photos that have been digitally altered.

We share our policy on this issue after a dustup earlier this month wherein The Charleston Gazette ran a photograph credited to Lawrence Pierce that had been fussed with so as to make unreadable the logo of local TV station WOWK as it appeared on a reporter’s mic.

Executive editor Rob Byers went on Facebook just hours after the Dec. 3 edition was delivered to homes and stores to say a photographer had gone “outside the boundaries of our standards when he obscured the name of a television station on a microphone in today’s front-page photo.

“Other than the photographer, no one at the Gazette was aware of what had taken place with the photo. Our photographers know that it is unacceptable to alter reality in news photos. The photographer believed his action helped direct the focus of the photo to the subject. He was wrong to do so. This is a singular incident. Disciplinary action will be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Online, many defended Pierce. “Taiwanese Chinese-language newspapers and TV news shows routinely BLOCK out the names of competitor logos on mics in news shots,” one man wrote. “What’s the big deal? Why show a free ad for your competitor when you can use tech to block it out?”

The answer is, we show in news photos what really happened – and if that includes a microphone with a competitor’s logo or other details of real life, pesky though they may be, then that’s what stays in the photo. Our reputations as news organizations are at stake here.

One of the commenters online phrased it this way: “Photojournalism as a whole loses its credibility when the powerful tools photographers have at their disposal are misused.”

For Pierce, the stumble comes after more than 50 years with the Gazette. His career has included coverage of some of the state’s biggest-ever stories, from the Silver Bridge collapse in 1967, the Farmington mine disaster and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy’s visits to West Virginia the next year, the 1972 gob dam failure in Buffalo Creek Hollow that killed 118 and many more.

Pierce’s misstep, while regrettable, in my mind pales in comparison to the change made at another West Virginia paper back in 2010. In that case, an editor at The Dominion Post ordered the doctoring of an official photo from the governor’s office of a group to mark the passing of Erin’s Law.

The original photo, taken by Martin Valent as then-Gov. Joe Manchin signed legislation to better protect hit-and-run victims, showed five people standing around the governor, but the version that ran in the Dominion Post showed Manchin with just two people, both members of the family of the bill’s namesake, Erin Keener. Gone from the picture were three Democratic legislators sponsoring the bill prompted after Keener’s death at 21 after she was struck by a car and dragged down a Fairmont street in 2005.

The paper’s purported defense came in two parts: First, that the photo was an illustration and not a news photo (though it wasn’t labeled as such) and second, that The Dominion Post has a policy against running photos of lawmakers up for re-election (though readers quickly offered up multiple exceptions to that rule from the pages of the D-P).

We wanted to spell out that our policy on news photography would prohibit the kind of Photoshop shenanigans seen at the Morgantown paper and more recently at the Gazette. Here, it’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get, i.e. what the photographer captures is what appears on our website and in print.

Let me also say this: Thank you for reading the Spirit. We’re glad you’ve chosen to make us part of your week. If you haven’t signed up for a subscription, we’d ask you to take that step. We’re planning to bring our readers another terrific year in 2014.

— Robert Snyder

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