The Ethics of Magazine Photo Manipulation in the Media

Make up artist covering model's acne for magazine photo shoot
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Photo manipulation can give your magazine a dramatic, creative, and provocative visual boost that can generate higher sales. That's why it's tempting to change photographs to maximize their ability to grab eyeballs. However, controversy can often result, which can inflict long-term damage if readers feel duped. Decide whether you will allow photo manipulation so you can avoid ethical problems later by following the ethics of magazine photo manipulation.

Simple Photo Manipulation is Acceptable

It would be easy for a magazine editor to forbid photo manipulation. But as soon as the red-eye is removed from someone's photo, the image is altered. Readers will accept fixing flaws, such as correcting colors or lighting. After all, that's what most of them do with their photographs before they have them printed. Shooting in black and white or changing a color photo to appear black and white are technically manipulating reality. Because no deception is involved, this creative technique will not raise ethical concerns.

Unflattering Photos Sometimes Need Help

If you're an editor reviewing photos from a Hollywood gala, you'll be keen to put an up-and-coming actress on your cover. But in the best photograph that captures her spirit and style, you spot a tiny piece of spinach in her teeth.

Your intention isn't to point out that the rich and famous have the same flaws as the rest of us. So you decide to do your starlet a favor and remove the green speck in her winning smile. No one will be the wiser unless someone else publishes the true photograph and you're set up as a before-and-after comparison.

That's just what happened in 1997 when Newsweek improved the smile of Bobbi McCaughey, who'd made headlines after giving birth to septuplets. Trouble is, rival Time left her teeth as-is. Their dueling covers made it known which magazine was performing digital dentistry as an act of photo manipulation.

That's why you should decide how far you'll go in helping someone look better. Will you erase facial blemishes and blur a man's razor stubble? What about wrinkles? Everyone on your staff should know the limits of cosmetic touch-ups or else you'll have 80-year-old men looking like Ryan Seacrest when someone gets carried away.

Decide Why You're Using an Unflattering Photograph

Newsweek faced political heat for its cover photo of 2012 Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann that some said made her look too intense, almost crazed. The magazine tried to defend itself by showing other photos of her with similar facial expressions.

The photo went with an article titled, "The Queen of Rage," so showing Bachmann hugging a toddler wouldn't have connected the image to the story. Newsweek did restrain itself from adding smoke or devil horns to make its point.

Magazines are under no obligation to use only pre-approved beauty shots on their covers. Editors should decide if a photo will pass a litmus test of fairness by asking if people were captured in a temporary unflattering moment—like mid-sneeze—or if this is a true representation of them.

Be Sure to Treat Everyone Fairly

In the 2008 Presidential election, a fresh Barack Obama was up against a time-tested John McCain. Put their photos together on a cover and readers could assume you're making a political statement if one looks better than the other.

That's why side-by-side photos, especially in a political context, must be chosen carefully. In the case of Obama vs. McCain, the wrong combination could make McCain appear elderly. On the other hand, a different combination -- say of McCain in a suit in front of an American flag next to the thinner Obama outdoors in his shirtsleeves -- might make Obama seem too youthful and inexperienced.

Study the photos to determine their ability to be used next to each other. If one candidate is posed in an official campaign photograph, make sure the other one is in the same setting. Put them both in suits or show them both shaking hands unless you have a compelling editorial reason to show a contrast.

Disclose Any Photo Manipulation

Removing food particles or improving smiles may be performed with the best of intentions, but sometimes photos are enhanced for more questionable motives. Time and Newsweek had another cover shot faceoff when O.J. Simpson was arrested in 1994.

Both magazines used his mug shot on their covers. But the Time photo showed Simpson's skin noticeably darker, which had critics saying that the magazine wanted him to appear more sinister. Some even said racial bias was behind the change.

Skin tone is a touchy issue for media critics. Beyonce Knowles was blasted for appearing in a fashion shoot with lighter skin, while ESPN The Magazine was booed when it demonstrated how NFL quarterback Michael Vick might look as a caucasian.

Turning skin dark also presents problems, especially when the person is white. That's what happened when a British newspaper gave guest editor Giorgio Armani the freedom to show Kate Moss with black skin to highlight the needs of Africa.

In these cases, the intent wasn't to deceive because the alterations were so obvious. But editors of the magazines would've been wise to include a column explaining their artistic choices to avoid accusations of racial insensitivity.

Set a Photo Policy for Your Art Department

There are countless ways to get into trouble with readers by making reckless decisions on photo manipulation. Because you can't police your art department's every brushstroke, it's better to set a clearly-defined policy, especially when your magazine allows a guest editor to call the shots for an issue.

Create guidelines for when a photo is meant to reflect reality—like the aftermath of 9/11—or if is supposed to be creating artwork. For example, showing President Obama with eight hands, each juggling an important issue like the military or the economy isn't meant to convey that he looks like an octopus.

Name a senior photo editor to approve questionable photos. That supervisor would have the authority to okay wrinkle reduction or tooth whitening. Anything beyond that should get the attention of higher-level executives. There's nothing wrong with publishing a controversial photo, but everyone should be ready for possible backlash and have an explanation for their decision-making.