October 26, 2005

Photo Ethics Eludes USA Today

Michelle Malkin busts the photo editor of USA Today for manipulating a photo of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in a way that makes Dr. Rice look just a wee bit possessed.

As she notes, Richard Curtis is USAT's Graphics and Photos Managing Editor, and while I don't know if he directly had a hand in deciding to run the doctored photo, he is ultimately responsible for a manipulation that would appear to be a violation of most people's concept of photo ethics (If you have a problem seeing this ethics violation, slap a pair of Linda Blair eyes on Hillary Clinton or Jesse Jackson and you should be able to suddenly see it clearly).

What are responsible photo ethics? When is it acceptable to manipulate photos, and to what extent? Fred Showker at 60 Second Window has a wonderful practical guide for photo ethics, which defines in part what acceptable photo ethics entail:

editing procedures are allowed to compensate for limitations and defects inherent in the digital photographic process. However, the editor must be diligent to protect the photo's true-to-life accuracy.

And isn't:

For the sake of representing honest and accurate information, the digital editor should avoid anything that will change the actual event or scene as it was captured by the camera. This includes adding, removing or moving objects in such a way that the context of the event is altered. The digital image editor must be careful to let the photos speak for themselves. So it's not permissible to alter any aspect of place or time -- like removing wrinkles or gray hair. Additionally they should never enhance or distract from the apparent quality or desirability of a subject, or the aesthetics of a place.

It is quite clear that USA Today violated these guidelines, creating an image that was a misleading, decidedly negative representation of an individual. The person or persons who directly manipulated this photo and the person who allowed it to run should be disciplined, and possibly terminated for a gross and deliberate abuse of journalistic integrity.

Now is when we will discover if USA Today is a responsible news organization, or a tabloid. The ball is in your court, Mr. Curtis.

(Cross-posted to

Update: Horrible, pre-coffee grammer cleaned up.

Update #2: Welcome Matt Drudge/Michelle Malkin/Instapundit readers to my little corner of the web. Confederate Yankee usually writes about politics and media bias, and you caught us on one of those media bias stories. We're currently soliciting funds to replace an aging (circa 2001) computer, and if you have a few bucks to spare, it would be greatly appreciated.

If you want to know more about Confederate Yankee before you donate, please visit the main page for more articles.


Update #3: Horrible, post-coffee oversight of the incorrect spelling of grammar as "grammer" cleaned up.

Update #4: Please read the updated follow-up post "Slitting Their Wrists with Occam's Razor."

Posted by Confederate Yankee at October 26, 2005 09:56 AM | TrackBack

You guys have got to be kidding. Photos are doctored everyday. This is hardly a gross misrepresentation of Ms. Rice. If it were not for you and Malkin making a stink of this no one would care.

Posted by: nonc0mpliant at October 26, 2005 01:16 PM

To paraphrase Yogi Bera, "Of course nobody cares. That's why everybody's reading it."

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at October 26, 2005 01:24 PM

Wow. There are actually people so morally bankrupt that they would defend this sort of photo doctoring. Leftists never cease to amaze me.

Posted by: The Warden at October 26, 2005 01:26 PM

Confederate Yankee, how dare you expose this! Leave noncOmpliant and this fellow leftists to their propaganda. Your freedom of speech is violating their right to tell lies.

Posted by: The Warden at October 26, 2005 01:28 PM

what else can we expect from the left when they will doctor entire movies to fit their agenda (fahrenheit 911) whats a photo after that? bunch of moonbats

Posted by: aflyonthewall at October 26, 2005 01:32 PM


Posted by: LOU at October 26, 2005 01:37 PM

Pre-emptive apology for the flame. Felt it was deserved.

noncompliant-you're an idiot. YES photos ARE doctored everyday, but robberies and rapes are committed every day too. Does that make them OK too?

However, professional, responsible photo-MANAGEMENT is necessary, due to the incompatibilities of the different media. Web presentation is very different from print, and newsprint is very different from other inking systems (such as raised print, toner-based systems, dye sub, etc).

Image sources also vary, and introduce another wrinkle in the compatibilities. Traditional print is different from it's negatives, which is different than digital, which has it's own variations (resolution, screening, color depth, etc). So they all require "adjustment" to be legible in another medium.

Bottom line is-this was DELIBERATE manipulation by a publisher to create an image that does not reflect reality in ANY WAY.

If the articel intended for you to know the image was altered for effect it would be forgiveable. But to pass it off as real and to play on the subconscious of the unwitting is reprehensible.

So, until you learn more about the print world I recommend you sit down and shut up.

Posted by: bob at October 26, 2005 01:39 PM


I disagree. Images carry a powerful message, and the people who trade in them know it better than anyone. Doctoring a photograph in order to convey a particular impression is the same as passing opinion off as fact in a newspaper article. It is a dishonest attempt to move attitudes in the direction of choice. Propaganda is another name for it. Yes, photos are doctored everyday - that is why the process must be held to the strictest ethical guidelines. The ability exists to do great harm.

Posted by: TheRealSwede at October 26, 2005 01:43 PM

As a graphics designer. I have adjusted the level of white of an individuals eyes and teeth numerous times on numerous photos. This is an extreme example of course. However I very hardly doubt this to be a synical act.

Posted by: Daniel at October 26, 2005 01:45 PM


There is a difference between altering promotional or advertising photography and news photos. News photos are to objectively portray facts. The USA Today alteration doesn't.

I worked several summers at a major metro newspaper as a news photographer while in college. It was an absolute no-no to retouch any face in a news photo. You could alter contrast and focus in negative to print phase, but no airbrushing out facial lines, adding hair, eyebrows etc.

There was no problem in enhancing ad photos. But in news photos it was forbidden.

Clearly USAT crossed the line on this one.

Posted by: Corky Boyd at October 26, 2005 02:01 PM

First, the Devil's Advocate.

Maybe it was just a horrid mistake and not a calculated attempt to create a specific image.

As was mentioned further up the blog, we are dealing with multiple formats and printing and inks etc....

Maybe the intial attempt at doctoring the photo was anticipated to make Madam Secretary's eyes look normal when the digital photo was transfered to newsprint. And the result was just completely unexpected, but it was too late to do anything about it.

Now, for the reality check on it all.

Whoever did the initial manipulation is probably going to use the above DA argument to cover his (or her) butt.

But the odds are they knew exactly what they were doing, and what the final outcome would be. But being the clever little SOB (or DOB) they are, they built in a plausible excuse for why it was not intentional. Just a perfect example of the law of unattended consequences.

Or I could be completely wrong all the way around, but the odds are really against that. I'm too good to be wrong. :)

Posted by: WildKarma at October 26, 2005 02:07 PM

I fail to see how this SHOULDN'T be characterized as a gross misrepresentation when (a) the original photo was just fine the way it was and was in no need of enhancing, and (b) the effect of the "enhancment" clearly alters Ms. Rice's appearance and, therefore, her perceived personality.

Why is it necessary to make any changes to a photo beyond color correction or gamma levels? What was wrong with using the original? The fact that the photo was doctored like that when the original was perfectly suitable for publication is evidence enough that it was intentional and clearly "synical" (sic). There is no excuse for this. No excuse at all.

Posted by: at October 26, 2005 02:08 PM

Hi all,
Ok, I too believe that the MSM is skewed dramatically to the left and accept that this could be deliberate manipualtion with the intent of casting Ms Rice in less than flattering light. However, it could also be something less nefarious.
If you notice, the whole image has been filtered and degraded in quality in the USAT example. This could be due to processing for print reproduction to enhance contrast. It doesn't explain how it made its way through the editorial/publication process to web publication, but I have no idea if images are segrigated for use for each media at the USAT of if this is common practice in the industry, even. Another possibility is that images intended for web use are often filtered to reduce their filesize sot that they load quicker and require less storeage space on the server.
This filtering almost always results in noticable degredation of image quality. Perhaps that is what happened in this case.
But again, it is all to easy to believe that this is an instance of deliberate misrepresentation with a built-in element of plausible deniability.
Before anyone flames me, I'm not a DUmmie lurker or anything.
I just think it is important to consider all posibilities and to be sure of oneself before making accusations. If accusations are poorly founded and end up being explainable for other reasons, this can discredit the attempt to demonstrate genuine instances of intentional misrepresentation.

Posted by: monkbarns at October 26, 2005 02:18 PM

Does anyone remember the stink that was made about Time magazine (I think) that darkened OJ Simpson’s face when it was on the cover to make him look more "ominous" or criminal-like?

The fact is, it is unethical to alter a NEWS photo for any reason which changes the appearance of the individual who is the subject of the story.

Clearly after seeing both the before and after photo side by side, it is obvious that the alteration had no real need. Her eyes looked fine and in color context with the rest of her face and other things in the shot. Making her eyes super white served no purpose in anything pertaining to the story or the representation of her in that photo. It only made her look odd.

And anyone who knows anything about advertising or propaganda knows that psychology is 90% of getting your agenda across.

Posted by: kirch66 at October 26, 2005 02:23 PM

The problem will be self-correcting.

Obviously, the photo's manipulator would have been killed by Condi's patented 'Glare-of-Death'.

Some crimes are self-punishing.

Posted by: Parker at October 26, 2005 02:31 PM

Um, now how about the post-coffee spelling of the word grammar?

Posted by: Bobbert at October 26, 2005 03:09 PM

Um, that last comment was meant as a joke. Actually, I really like your blog. It's one of my 'must-read' sites.

Posted by: Bobbert at October 26, 2005 03:15 PM

It is pretty much a gross misreprensentation when it is meant to be portrayed as the actual photo. There is a huge difference between putting Hillary's head on Jamie Presley's body (yup, that was me) which was taken as pure humor, and manipulating the eyes to make Condi look either demonic or crazy.

But, then, the Left feeds off of this tripe, since they have no plans, no agenda, no ideas, other they hate Bush, Hate Republicans, hate the military, hate Amerika (their spelling, of course). All hate and negativity.

Posted by: William Teach at October 26, 2005 03:27 PM

You're right; you don't see that kind of gross misrepresentation when it involves Hillary or Jesse Jackson. I've seen spoofs but this was under the guise of professional journalism. If they altered the photo, what else in the body of the story was "enhanced?"

Posted by: Deanage at October 26, 2005 04:07 PM

I’d like to explain how that happened., like other news organizations, often adjusts photos for sharpness and brightness to optimize their appearance when published online. In this case, a editor sharpened the photo and then brightened a portion of Rice's face. Those changes had the effect of distorting the photo and failed to meet our editorial standards for accuracy and integrity. The photo has been replaced with a properly adjusted copy and an editor's note has been published here: The photo did not appear in the USA TODAY newspaper.

The editors of will make every effort to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.

Kinsey Wilson

Posted by: Kinsey Wilson at October 26, 2005 04:32 PM

yeah. right.

Posted by: at October 26, 2005 04:38 PM

The USA Today editor's response is incredible (not to mention laughable):

In this case, after sharpening the photo for clarity, the editor brightened a portion of Rice's face, giving her eyes an unnatural appearance. This resulted in a distortion of the original not in keeping with our editorial standards.

This editor, whoever he or she is, ought to be fired, along with the incompetent who doctored the photo, the bozo that posted the pic on the website, and anyone else involved in this farce. (like THAT'S going to happen)

Posted by: Mr Write at October 26, 2005 05:16 PM

There is a racist element here as well. How often, in years past, did caricatures of African-Americans show them bug-eyed, with the whites of their eyes (and often teeth) exaggerated? This sort of reality manipulation results from the same kind of low-brow stereotyping. The only African-Americans liberals "respect" are those they can keep slavishly dependent on them, both financially and politically.

Posted by: wordworker at October 26, 2005 05:51 PM

This is all really quite silly. You'd think someone had been framed for murder.

I am also a designer -- who used to work in newpapers -- and there's no such thing of a photo NOT being manipulated (burning and dodging in the old days, photoshop sharpening and enhancement now). That's reality of running a business, journalism or otherwise. NO... zits and blemishes are never removed, nor is the content of the photo ever doctored.

But I did get a chuckle from all the neocons on this thread thinking it's some 'grand conspiracy' to make Rice look like a loon; thing is, she doesn't need anyone's help with that. :)

Posted by: SilverSveltcat at October 26, 2005 05:57 PM

"Now is when we will discover if USA Today is a responsible news organization or a tabloid."

Discovery is complete, USA Today is a leftist tabloid!!

Posted by: docdave at October 26, 2005 06:02 PM

What's even more outrageous -- we have the missing "third photo"

Posted by: California Conservative at October 26, 2005 06:11 PM

SilverSveltcat: You may claim to be a designer, but you sure aren't a professional one! Even a nitwit can see that doctoring a pic to create a negative impression is a FAR CRY from adjusting a pic to improve its quality.

What you are trying to do is justify the unjustifiable, and it's only making you look stupid.

Posted by: Mr Write at October 26, 2005 06:45 PM

Wow. I did not realize that so many people would take my very short comment so personally. Those of you who attack me with names and labels can shove it.

Those of you who have logical and well thought responses, I thank you.

Lastly, my simple point is this: I do not know how this photo manipulation harms Ms. Rice's character. It is not like she has horns growing out of her head or orbs of glowing death in her eyes. I just think that people's time and energy might be better spent talking about things that matter.

There are and should be ethics when dealing with these issues, but to complain so fervently about this confuses me. Thanks for letting me be part of the debate, Confederate Yankee.

Posted by: nonc0mpliant at October 26, 2005 07:33 PM

Racism? Have a conservative news organization put those eyes on another black, liberal face and get out the riot gear in whatever blue city you care to name. But since Dr Rice is a Republican the usual race baiters will greet this little sophomoric bit of pictorial slander with a yawn. Get used to it.

Posted by: MadJayhawk at October 26, 2005 07:50 PM

Check out this animated comparison of the photos:
Condi Comparison

Who ever did this at USA Today should get fired. This is the kind of photo you expect to see at The Onion. No matter how much I think Condi Rice is Evil, this kind of activity is completely unacceptable for a mainstream media outlet.

Posted by: Fletch at October 26, 2005 07:53 PM

The issue with your comment was your disregard of the offense, to relegate the utter disregard for professional ethics on the part of the magazine to a mere pittance.

To overlook such improprieties is to begin slipping down the slippery slope of permitting ANY kind of unethical activity on the premise that "someone else is already doing this, so I might as well too".

Don't dare to say "get over it" and NOT expect someone to take exception with your acceptance of such unethical, offensive, and irresponsible "reporting".

The bottom line is they got caught, and should be severely disciplined for their behavior, REGARDLESS of the party involved. I don't care whether it was Condi or Hillary, or Trump or Tyson. If they are attempting to be a legitimate (sp?) NEWS source, then integrity is paramount.

If they had altered her words in the same manner it would be considered slanderous.

How would it feel if it were YOU being misrepresented on the cover?

Posted by: bob at October 27, 2005 12:24 AM

There is an interesting analysis of the photoshopping at my site that you might be interested in.

Posted by: Sam at October 27, 2005 04:39 AM

The level of vitriol never ceases to amaze me when it comes to people seeing bias in the press. I've worked at major media outlets for 15+ years and been directly in charge of online photography on and off for the last eight. This is clearly, without question, a simple case of a junior producer being put in charge of photoshop work with no idea what he or she is doing. It's incompetence, not agenda. What the editor of USAT won't say is that this type of midday story, which didn't make the print edition, is left to the most junior people to maintain the steady flow of new content online. There was nobody with more than two years in the news biz watching as this completely AP-provided story went online until it blew up in their faces. The dirty little secret here is that notoriously-cheap Gannett is letting the babies run the nursery, not any vast liberal conspiracy.

Posted by: Rick at October 27, 2005 11:06 AM


Your opinion maybe would hold more weight if the mainstream media hadn't been caught countless times doing exactly what this thread suggest.

Posted by: blamin at October 27, 2005 11:38 AM


BTW, call it vitriol if you like, but the "incompetence as a defense/excuse” has also been used countless times.

Posted by: blamin at October 27, 2005 11:41 AM

Condi the snake woman versus Condi the regular woman....hmmmm, I don't think the voodoo of MS Paint worked very well.

Manipulation should only be used for good, not evil.

Everyone with a differing opinion please die and go to hell.

Respect Mah Authoritah!

Posted by: Hoo dooVooDoo at October 27, 2005 03:31 PM

It looks like they took a Photoshop "pixel" tool and simply brightened up the whites of her eyes. They did not change much of the other tones of the picture. I duplicated the effect in one minute on my computer. An elementary school student could have done this, it's that simple. A "sharpen mask" filter was not needed as someone else had pointed out. Regardless, it's a low-life thing to do to someone. USA Today should hang their head in shame for this.

Posted by: Dennis at October 27, 2005 04:33 PM

It may not be a murder frame, but the fear of every neo-dem is that Hillary will not be the first woman in the White House...and that Condi will be.
That scares the bejabbers out of neo-dems. When that happens, the "Give me(the welfare state) and I will give you the nigger vote for a hundred years!" hundred years will be O_V_E_R. If a Republican woman, a black republican woman, wins in 2008, the neo-dem party of perverts, liars, and baby-killers may as wellbag it and shag it.

In the effort to prevent this, the neo-lib ruled mass-media will stop at no dirty trick, no matter how small, or subtle to "re-color" what is, in fact, black and white. The USATOADY official Wilson, master of propagandaspeak, is false false false. A quick search of his by-line and writting shows his manifestering destiny is neo-lib spawn.

About vitriol, that is so far from the mark. The day when the media stops "telling us what to think" and gets back to telling us what is fact, we will give media different respect. But today, because the media has done what it does, it gets the respect it deserves.
That isn't vitriol.
It is justice.
Neo-lib Media deserves no respect, and gets none.

We have brains. Even if they are small ones.
Give us the facts; we can decide.

Dennis, it was a highly manipulated photo, no matter how fast it was done. Speed means nothing.

In closing, we don't want neo-dem's shame.
We have enough of that already. That is the only surplus Clinton left behind.
Liberals and Democrats have given America so much shame, these groups are now...shameless!

We want them to take responsibility for what they have done. Is that asking too much? From neo-dems, aparently so.

Posted by: unreal at October 28, 2005 03:38 AM

I used to work for Gannett, who owns and runs USA Today, as well as 120 other papers in the US, UK, and Guam. I worked as an imaging technician, the person that performs the everyday manipulations on images (color, contrast, etc.) mentioned many times in these posts. I can guarantee you that short of someone playing a prank (photo editors do not see those photos before they go out...the photos are passed from copy editor to imaging technician, who tones them and sends them along to the press), this photo's placement online might actually be the problem. An image looks drastically different online than it does on newsprint, and the images are therefore different files. Sometimes an online editor might grab a toned photo rather than the original file to post online, causing it to look saturated and contrasty. The person you should call about this is the Press Manager, who gets the last look at the paper before it goes out, or the Online Editor, who likely posted the wrong file.

And a side note: I'm not sticking up for this gross mistake made my underlings at a giant newspaper. I'm also concerned that you folks think USA Today is liberal.

Posted by: sbrown at October 30, 2005 03:47 PM

I don't see why they even bothered to alter the picture. The original isn't any more flattering. She looks like a broody teen that isn't getting her way.

Posted by: Faldage at October 30, 2005 08:28 PM