Pulitzer winning photojournalist canned for digitally altering photo

Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Narciso Contreras – Story from J-source.ca

By Madison Farkas

As journalists, it’s essential that we understand our own brand of power in the form of the entry our profession grants us. We have the privilege of access to people, places and events that the general public does not. If we claim that our first and greatest obligation is truth-seeking on behalf of the public, then we owe it to our audience not to deceive them.

And deliberate deception is what seems to have taken place in the case of a freelance photographer fired by the Associated Press (AP) last week after digitally altering one of his images.

AP announced Wednesday that it had “severed ties” with Narciso Contreras, who digitally altered one of his photographs of the war in Syria. In the original image of a Syrian resistance fighter, another journalist’s camera is visible in the lower left corner. In the doctored version, Contreras “cloned” part of the background and used it to cover the other photographer’s equipment, according to the AP’s news release.

This swift and brutal retribution comes as no surprise in an industry that, though fraught with ethical debates, has remained firm in its stance against such calculated misdirection.

Contreras—who said in the press release he is ashamed of his decision—was part of a group of AP photographers who shared a Pulitzer Prize for their work in Syria in 2013.

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But all the commendation in the world won’t make up for a lapse in judgment. Not only has Contreras damaged his own credibility and prospects for future employment, he has also given those who already lack faith in journalism one more reason to doubt the integrity of the profession as a whole.

Graeme Roy, director of news photography at the Canadian Press—AP’s north-of-the-border equivalent—said it’s unfortunate that a photojournalist would feel the need to do something like this. “They’re in a stressful position and a stressful place, and sometimes people make mistakes,” he said. “But in my opinion and for our organization, you have to have rules that protect the validity of your report that you distribute. People have to have faith that the photos that you are distributing are faithful reproductions of exactly what was seen at the time.”

While there is debate in the world of photojournalism over exactly how much editing should be allowed in news photography—with cropping and making minor corrections for exposure and colour balance in a gray area—digitally adding or removing any element of a photo is almost universally unacceptable.

Alteration after the fact has been a part of photography since its invention. With the advent of digital editing software, it has become only too easy for any hack with a computer to take a mediocre (but accurate) picture and twist it into an elegant, artistic, visually appealing lie.

But a lie it remains.

Contreras may have been documenting a high-pressure situation with understandably minimal time to compose his shots, but that doesn’t give him the right to change the reality of his surroundings just to make a better picture. One thing remains certain: outright lies deliberately intended to mislead audiences are not OK.

Just as print reporters are forbidden from fabricating sources, photojournalists should not alter their work to create a more cleanly composed photograph.

The removal of a camera may seem minor, but if the AP were to let this incident slide, where do you draw the line on allowing manipulations? If a camera can be zapped out of a picture for the crime of disrupting its composition, why not a person?

If we’re going to demand accountability and transparency from those we report on, it’s only right that we—and the public we serve—demand the same of ourselves. By publicly announcing Contreras’ ethics breach and parting ways with him, AP has demonstrated an admirable commitment to the most basic ethical principles of journalism.

Madison Farkas is a second-year journalism student at Mount Royal University and a reporter for the Calgary Journal. 

Opportunities -Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

image001We have two opportunities to work with CJFE that may be of interest to you and your networks.

We’re looking for a Digital Communications Consultant who can help us put together a digital communications strategic plan for CJFE.

Application deadline: Sunday, February 2, 2014

We also have a three-month internship for a Research and Publications Assistant to help us with our annual Review of Free Expression in Canada.

Application deadline: Wednesday, January 29, 2014

We encourage anyone interested to apply, and please forward this on to your networks or anyone you feel might be the right fit.



Laura Tribe

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Winning the Fight for Fairness: What Will You Do in 2014?

 head-martinBy Martin O’Hanlon

CWA Canada Director

I’m going to make a bold prediction for 2014: the tide will finally begin to turn.

It will turn for newspapers, which have been through the worst and will begin to see revenues climb again.

It will turn for the Harper government (it already has really) which has been attacking labour, the CBC, and many other progressive voices in Canada.

And most importantly, it will turn for economic inequality, which has become the biggest threat to this country’s future.

By noon on Jan. 2, each of Canada’s top-paid CEO’s had earned as much money in 2014 as the average Canadian worker will make all year.

I don’t begrudge a CEO, or anyone else, a big paycheque. But it is fundamentally unfair – not to mention bad for the economy and society – for companies to pay those big salaries and rake in huge profits when they don’t pay their workers a decent wage.

It angers me when Postmedia cuts hundreds of jobs and insists that it can’t give workers a raise, and then increases its CEO pay by a whopping 50%, to $1.7 million.

More importantly, it angers the majority of Canadians, who have an innate sense of what’s fair.

As 2014 dawns, ordinary people are finally realizing that there are fewer and fewer decent-paying jobs out there – the jobs that built this country.

Many young people are realizing that they may never be able to have that white picket fence. And many parents realize that their children don’t have the opportunity they had.

People are realizing that our political and financial system overwhelmingly favours big companies and the rich, and they see it for what it is: injustice.

It’s vital now that we in the labour movement show Canadians that we all share the same core values and that we are the only ones standing up for the Middle Class.

We have to build a movement, and that means working with other progressives, whether it’s community organizations, social groups, student activists, environmentalists, religious leaders – anyone with whom we can find a common interest.

The Canadian Labour Congress, to which we at CWA Canada belong, is attempting to do just that with its “Fairness Works” campaign. (Please visit:fairnessworks.ca)

The campaign aims to engage millions of union members in conversations about how unions have improved their lives – and share their stories with Canadians to help build a united movement for social justice.

And that’s where each of us has to play a part in 2014.

I am asking each of you – every member of CWA Canada – to commit to doing just one thing this year for the common good.

It could be talking to a fellow worker, especially a younger one, about getting involved in the union. It might be posting about social/economic justice issues on Facebook, volunteering to do something for your Local, telling friends about the good the union does, donating to a cause – whatever.

One person and one act at a time, working together, we can make a difference.

Let’s each do our part to protect quality jobs, defend quality journalism, improve wages, grow our union – and make Canada a better place.

Fairness works. Let’s fight the good fight together!