Blog Archives

End the Year with Top Biased Photos

Let’s return to the issue of biased images. Click on the link below and check out some of the most biased and obviously manipulated images – not necessarily from the previous year – and think a little bit more about how to protect yourself from such manipulation.

Photo Bias in the media.

You can see that there are essentially four strategies  to manipulating images.  The  first is termed  deliberate staging.  This is pretty self-explanatory and refers to  using objects to increase the emotional intensity of the message  or stimulate a particular conclusion that might not be warranted otherwise.  It represents a blatant lie  and the crude manipulation of an image by placing objects  in the image that were not there in the  first lace.  The  second strategy is called fauxtography.  This is making something look like a photograph that really is not.  So you can see in the one image how  a fired missile was captured on  the computer and reproduced  to make it look like another missile was fired and increase the impression of  military might and  competence.  This is particularly simple in the era of  computer photography and Photoshop. The  third way to manipulate images is through  perspective and angles.  Close-up shots of  a few hands make it look like there are more people present  then in actuality.  Wide-angle shots give a different perspective than  narrow angle shots.  Finally,  visual images can be recycled or reused.  Pictures of injured  or dead soldiers can be simply reused  in order to make the scene appear more emotional or communicative  of violence than actually occurred.

The ethics of digital manipulation of the news in particular are clear – it is unacceptable. There are debates about photo manipulation with respect to aesthetics or beauty. I have encountered the argument that enhancing beauty or engaging in numerous manipulations for the purpose of aesthetic enhancement only is acceptable. I can accept that. It is not very troubling that a movie star on the front of a magazine has blemishes removed and positive highlights. But a “news” story that is supposed to be telling some semblance of the truth is a different matter.

I have encountered the argument that enhancing a photograph through any of the four methods described above, for the purpose of what the perpetrator considers increased clarity and specificity, is acceptable. So, if a building is blown up and some children are killed then placing a baby’s toy in the center of the image enhances the significant emotional truth of the story. This is, of course, a weak argument that is dangerous since its acceptance justifies any sort of manipulation. Moreover, even if children were killed in an explosion there are numerous emotional and political issues that would be forced to the background because of an individual’s doctoring of the image. And although such an argument has been made is accepted by no reliable or trustworthy news organization.

Are You Offended by This Picture?

Are you offended by the picture below? Perhaps not but many people are.   It violates  a variety of moral foundations with respect to the interpretation of political messages  (see a review here).


The photo is of an American soldier hugging a Muslim woman in a niqab. It is an actual ad inspired by a real couple. At first glance it looks like a political statement with respect to American forces and their concern for local citizens in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the billboard is an ad for a throat spray that is supposed to help people stop snoring and thus keep them “together.” The ad does successfully pass the first rule of advertising which is to capture attention. But for some people this togetherness is too soon after 9/11, and for others it is shoving political correctness down our throats. Others find the ad endearing.

Some research did reveal that the soldier is real and one question that can be asked is why is an American soldier in uniform doing an ad for a commercial company? Well, that’s a good question but not what I’m interested in. It’s more interesting to examine the various responses to the ad and why some find it loving and inclusive and others distasteful and offensive. How you respond seems to be a matter of what sort of moral issues you are concerned with.

Jonathan Haidt of course in his book Moral Foundations Theory ( has explained how liberals and conservatives differ with respect to which moral systems they respond to. Haidt identifies six moral foundations and they are briefly: care/harm, liberty/suppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. I won’t elaborate on them all for space considerations but a few insights are worthy.

The care/harm distinction evolved from the need to care for children and is now stimulated by messages about suffering in distress. Compassion is a strong emotion here. For conservatives, however, that compassion is more associated with members of your own group than an outgroup. Conservatives are more likely to help members of an ingroup rather than an outgroup. For liberals, care and compassion are more universal and might be triggered by anyone suffering. There is a subtle element of this in the photograph as the soldier seems to be caring for the woman. Liberals who are more responsive to universal care are more likely to accept the photograph and find it less troublesome.

The sanctity/degradation continuum is also particularly important to those with a conservative ideology. Early in our evolutionary history there was a survival advantage to avoiding human waste, decaying food, and health threats of all types. Haidt argues that many objects as a consequence became sacred and we wanted to protect them against desecration, thus setting into motion “sacred” images, flags, and words. American conservatives tend to bestow sanctity quite easily on objects such as flags, ideologies such as capitalism, and desecration on the other things such as homosexuality and foreign objects. The image of the Muslim has become contaminated and clearly by many with strong conservative ideologies seen as a threat and something to be avoided. The most conservative viewers of the photograph are the most “put off” because they see the sanctity of the American soldier being degraded by contact with an impure other.

We respond to things not only according to our economic interests our moral ones. The argument that we have evolved these moral standards over time and as a result of evolutionary needs does seem to be defensible enough. A few of these moral standards such as “caring,” “fairness,” and “sanctity,” are clearly the divides that separate moral reasoning. A strong liberal will be more supportive of using government to level the playing field and achieve a sense of fairness; whereas, a conservative who is consistent with conservative values will defend traditions and infuse some objects and ideas with “sanctity.”

The soldier in the photograph is more sanctified than the woman and that’s why we immediately perceive his threat and express suspicion about her. So what you see and how you interpreted is certainly not an objective processing of an image, but an interpretive act that includes the interaction of your political predispositions with the object of interest.

What’s Happening in This Picture?

It’s always a legitimate question to ask whether or not a photograph is telling the truth.

Mideast Israel Palestinians
This photograph was captioned by Time magazine on April 29, 2013. It is reproduced here from Hariman and Lucaites’ No Caption Needed. The photo was slightly enhanced but apparently within journalistic limits.The original caption had an incorrect date and location and although such mistakes can be important it is not my concern at the moment.

You can see, however, that there are additional issues at stake. If you look closely the man being restrained by the police is rubbing his eyes and the one soldier is holding a spray can and pointing it toward him. The restrained man apparently resisted and the soldiers resorted to spraying something in his eyes. You can actually see a small cloud of the spray coming from the canister.

Every time I see one of these photographs I’m reminded of the Eddie Adams photograph of the Saigon chief of police holding a gun to the head of a Vietcong and about to pull the trigger. You can see it here.
Eddie Adams Photo of Vietcong

This is a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph. Regardless of what you think of the picture it is a powerful and compelling moment that communicates the tension and anxiety just before the instance of having your brains blown out.

The photograph has been associated with lawlessness and the street justice that took place during the Vietnam War and rightfully so. But the man who was shot was a known Vietcong sympathizer who apparently had committed violent acts of his own and was far from innocent. Again, I am not in any way defending the street lawlessness portrayed in the photograph but it is helpful to know what happened immediately before the moment of the photograph. Israelis often complain about a lack of context or understanding about what preceded an Israeli military incursion and that using tanks as weapons is usually a response to earlier aggression rather than an initiative. It is typical for newspapers around the world to show for example an Israeli tank destroying a house and leaving it at that – with the conclusion that Israel is engaging in excessive force. The Israelis are always chagrined at how no one asks who was in that house and what preceded the tank attack. It’s a matter of context.

We might ask the same question about the fellow rubbing his eyes and the soldier holding a spray can. I presume the soldiers are trying to disable the man so that he is no longer a threat.The caption for this picture could have read “Israeli police pepper-spray protester” and directed attention to perhaps improper behavior on the part of the police. Or, the caption could have read “man being arrested” and framed the protester as a criminal.

Lucaites and Hariman (see No Caption Needed link above) elaborate on the role of captions by pointing out that they can tell you what to think about as well as tell you what to ignore. Moreover, it’s interesting to note that this photograph is typically cast as an Israeli “peace image.” Such a classification equates peace with security which, on the one hand, is consistent with the Israeli sense of existential threat that it lives with on a daily basis. Yet, it is not an image of a warm peace rooted in cooperation and mutuality.

Images are powerful and persuasive. The public often forgets that images are designed for particular audiences on the basis of the message they express. Sometimes these designs are highly calculated and represent strategies to reinforce or create new attitudes. The role of images in the peace process – the strategic role – remains reasonably unexamined. There are, for example, moral questions that still challenge the best practices of using photographic images.

Captions and CutLines Lie Like Cameras

The two photos below represent different captions designed to frame the story in a particular manner. The first photo is from AP and was reported by Elder of Ziyon.


A Palestinian rioter tries to grab a weapon from a plain clothes Israeli police officer, right, during clashes in Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. Palestinians scuffled with Israeli security forces, after an arrest operation triggered clashes in the camp the day before.

The second photo is from Reuters


An undercover Israeli police officer (R) scuffles with a Palestinian youth suspected of throwing stones while trying to detain him during clashes in the Shuafat refugee camp in the West Bank near Jerusalem. Clashes erupted between Palestinian stone throwers and Israeli police that entered the refugee camp, a Reuters witness said on Tuesday.

The caption for the two photographs is actually quite different. In one sense, the descriptions do not contradict each other. They both described the scene. But it is possible to conclude with some different interpretations on the basis of the caption alone. In the Reuters version the Israeli appears to be the aggressor because he is trying to “detain” the Palestinian. The readers conceptual background might easily identify the Palestinian as engaged in legitimate revolt and doing little more than throwing stones at the bigger more well armed soldier and his comrades. It is the classic David and Goliath image. Anyone writing a caption should have the typical reader in mind. But in the AP version the Palestinian is characterized as more aggressive because he is trying to grab the weapon and will probably use it on the policeman. The policeman’s aggressive behavior would of course be justified in this case.

In the Reuters version, the fighting “erupted” and apparently the Israeli police entered the refugee camp which was sufficient provocation. But in the AP version there was an arrest operation that provoked the violence. The websites “Elder of Zyion” and “Honest Reporting” claim that the Reuters organization used an Arab stringer for a description of the events.

This poses an interesting question with respect to the newsgathering process and how stories are framed. Some news outlets have websites and phone numbers that one can call in order to report a story. So anyone can fill out a form on the web and provide a description of some event or activity and perhaps attract the attention of a news organization. The person leaves phone numbers and email addresses where he or she can be reached and the news organization contacts them. This of course can be an excellent source of news and is the sort of contact that results in specified and situationally-based stories. But on the other hand, this process can be abused. It can result in stories that are biased as a result of the selection process or stories, even worse, that are staged or distorted in some significant way.

Actually, the description underneath the photographs is a cutline and not a caption. A caption is a little headline and a cutline describes the photograph in more detail. Reader psychology and tendencies are important because the photo sparks interest and then readers typically move underneath seeking explanations. It’s important for cutlines to perform their duties. Cutlines like stories answer the who, what, why, when, and how question of journalism. When cutlines are more on the objective side of the dimension they satisfy reader’s understanding of the picture but have not necessarily told the reader what to think. The more cutlines are politically motivated the more they draw the reader’s attention toward some specified reality on the part of the news outlet.

A picture may be worth a thousand words but each of those words is capable of altering the meaning of the picture. A skilled cutline writer knows these things and chooses his words carefully.

Photo Manipulation by Hamas in Gaza

Photo manipulation has been with us a long time. There are two types of manipulations: the first is to alter the image and the second is to simply deceive the viewer about the content or story behind the image. Lesser artists tried to copy the great masters and pass them off as originals. In later years images were touched up with ink, double exposure, and airbrushing. But the possibilities for manipulation of photographic images with the advent of the digital age increased exponentially. It also has become easier to copy and send images such that they circulate and take on a reality of their own. An image can be false or deceptive but millions of people have been exposed to it before discovering the deception. Take the example below:

This is the sort of disinformation that can be easily spread by manipulating images. The picture of the dead child spread quickly across the Internet and was described as a dead girl in the arms of the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The child was killed during the Gaza war in December 2012 and, as reported by Palestinian sources, was killed by an Israeli rocket. But according to Honest Reporting, a website that tracks deception and manipulation, the child was not killed by Israel but rather an errant rocket fired by Hamas. This image spread through Twitter and Facebook and imprinted itself in the minds of many before the correction.

The picture below is of an Israeli child wounded by Palestinian rockets. You can see the Hebrew lettering on the jacket of the man holding the child and, as the picture points out, the coat of arms in the upper left is of the city in southern Israel Kiryat Malakhi.

In a very real sense, everything about a photographic image has the potential for manipulation and untruths. Beginning with the choice of lens, available light, and how close or far to stand from the subject a photographer makes ethical decisions. And it is certainly possible to manipulate an image in the interest of increasing accuracy or improving the emotional impact for artistic reasons. But these composition decisions are more controllable and subject to standard considerations than blatant lies about the content of a photograph.

The press has a particularly important relationship between photographic images and their publication. There is a fiduciary relationship between the press and the public. And the press should not be in the position of corrupting this relationship. Granted, simply uploading an image to the Internet and making a false claim about it is easier because the individual and the Internet audience have no fiduciary relationship. This does not make the act of lying about an image any less despicable but the perpetrator gets away with it because he’s not turning a sound relationship into an impure one.

One consequence of this easy deception is a loss of faith in the photojournalistic profession and the power of the visual image. Since the goal of political photographs or journalistic photography is to reproduce accurately some social or political reality a powerful source of truth and emotion is lost as confidence in the accuracy of images diminishes.

To extend the Churchillian metaphor from the photograph above, truth has to get its pants on faster. This is an issue of the distribution of images rather than their compositional manipulation. Visual processing is powerfully analogic and impressionistic and only takes a few seconds. The old refrain of “a picture being worth 1000 words” is true enough. The deadening cynicism that results from exposure to too many manipulated, exaggerated, and false visual images makes it even more difficult for quality images to do the work for which they are intended. These visual “lies”, perpetrated mostly by Hamas detract from the peace process and exacerbate the conflict rather than mediate it. Agreement on disallowing these practices must be part of a final peace process, otherwise truth will not only be slow to get its pants on it will trip over itself.

Photographers Creating Drama

 Click here on the word  Photographers and watch the video (wait a moment for it to begin). You can see how photographers can become part of the story and help construct images. The media manipulation is part of ethnopolitical conflicts and the extent to which they are intensified by improper coverage of the story. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intense and complex and deserving of proper treatment.

  I’ve seen this myself in Israel on more than one occasion where photographer’s, reporters, and medical personnel show up before the protesters to get “ready” for the event. What gets reported in the news or on television, if it makes it that far, is more dramatic than what actually occurred.

Manipulated photographs gain their credibility by being attached to real photographs or real events. Adages about how a picture is worth 1000 words or how photographs never lie resonate with the public’s belief that pictures are real and tell the truth. The pressure for the public to believe the photograph is powerful so people view images and work hard to find them truthful.

It’s also the case that manipulated photographs make for a gray area of reality. The photograph is of course “of” something and this contributes increasingly to the sense of reality a photograph carries with it. Technology and computerized images are now so sophisticated that the fake picture can be better than a real one. It is so easy to simply “improve” the photograph by sharpening the colors, increasing the contrast, or cropping without encountering any moral questions about the new reality the photographer is creating.

Compare it to writing. If you observe an event or listen to an interaction and then go write a story using those instances, it is not much different than what a photographer does when he or she approaches a subject and constructs a photographic image. Maybe we should begin to think about photography as fictional and begin the process of teaching people to treat it as a story or narrative that has been constructed. Writers exceed the boundaries of truth and are called creative and interesting, why not the same for news photographs. The photographs from the news perspective are supposed to be reporting some semblance of the truth. If the photograph is manipulated or staged in any way it violates the truth to some degree.

I think the manipulation in this video is some of the worst kind because the photographers are going out of their way to replicate a dramatic and violent reality in order to increase the sense of excitement around the photograph. No one is benefiting from this.


%d bloggers like this: