Thursday, January 18, 2007

Closing the Circle (Not Circling the Wagons)

David Schlesinger has dropped the other shoe from last August's incident involving altered photos from the Middle East. The Editor-in-Chief of Reuters discloses in his blog that the senior photo editor in the region has been fired and replaced, the code of professional conduct for
Time is at a tremendous premium at a place like Reuters, where there absolutely no sense of a beginning, a middle or an end.
photographers has been re-written and changes to vetting procedures instituted.

"We called together our senior photographers to strengthen our existing exacting guidelines on ethical issues in photography and wrote a new code of conduct for photographers, appended to this note.

"We have restructured our pictures editing operation to ensure that senior editors deal with all potentially controversial photographs, and we have ensured that shift leaders are focusing solely on quality issues instead of doing editing themselves.

"In addition, we have invested in additional training and supervision, particularly in the area of digital workflow, where we have engaged external experts.

"Finally, we are working with industry leaders to see if there are technical means we can devise to better recognize possible fraud."

This last initiative was first disclosed by Reuters CEO Tom Glocer and involves Adobe and Canon.

Taken as a whole, it looks like Reuters has made all the right moves. As perhaps too a fine point, I wonder what were the exact transgressions of the fired senior editor. Schlesinger says only the editor "...was dismissed ... for his handling of the case." This suggests that the offense went beyond adhering to rules that have now been changed but were in force at the time.

The strongest impediment to doing things right is lack of time. Time is at a tremendous premium at a place like Reuters, where there absolutely no sense of a beginning, a middle or an end, but rather a steady, powerful stream that journalists jump in and out of -- but always there is more to do: one more call, one last peek at the competition, a second look at that photo ...

Of all the disclosed procedural changes the most significant is the new charge for shift leaders to focus solely on quality issues rather than doing any hands-on editing. This is very important because, as I have argued, the only way to stop an altered image is to look at them all critically, almost as an ombudsman, and the only way to do that is to make it somebody's job, to the exclusion of all else. I doubt that any technology will make it possible to automate the kind of quality assurance required and at worst could provide a false sense of security.

It was a human who caught a glimpse of the red flag last August, not a machine. A human who had the time, and the motivation. Reuters must be at least as motivated to spend time as its most vociferous critics.

One experienced image specialist notes, in a comment to Schlesinger's entry, that requiring photojournalists to also provide the RAW file of all of their images would provide a powerful baseline against which to detect illicit tampering -- and a tremendous disincentive to try.
"It’s extremely difficult to alter a RAW image in the compositional sense (helps in cropping, contrast, overall color balance correction and overall sharpness) and virtually impossible in an entire sequence," writes Geoffrey Mehl, Director of Publications at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

"The original RAW images would allow the photo desk to see the work right from the camera and make its own judgments on acceptable modification, as well as have a detailed archive (i.e., the entire “roll” and “contacts”)."
But this still takes time, and this approach wouldn't even take into account images taken by citizen journalists, which Reuters is contemplating putting in the news stream and which, one might argue, presents a considerably most serious potential breach of acceptable practices than rogue or careless employees.

Time is the enemy. Speed kills.

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