October 26, 2005

Slitting Their Wrists With Occam's Razor

In response to this morning's post on photo ethics at USA Today, USA Today Vice President and Editor-in-Chief Kinsey Wilson dropped by this humble blog and left the following comment:

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

I am very thankful for Wilson's direct response. It is rare for a media officer to respond directly to a blogger, and rarer still to admit that mistakes, indeed, distortions, were made and published.

But I humbly suggest that the techniques cited by Mr. Wilson are not the most likely techniques used to develop the now infamous Rice manipulations. The actual techniques were probably both less sophisticated, and more intentional in design than USA Today would have us believe.

To borrow one of the more popular interpretations of principal of Occam's Razor, "when you have two competing theories which make exactly the same predictions, the one that is simpler is the better."

In other words, the most direct route is often the most likely process, and the process USA Today's Wilson would have us believe created this photo is not the most direct, nor the most logical.

But let's start with what we know.

This is the photo that USA Today originally ran in this article.

It has since been replaced by this image.

The area of manipulation in this photo is on Rice's face, specifically her eyes. Look at the USA Today's manipulated version at 400% enlargement.

Notice that while the eyes and eyelids are heavily manipulated, other areas appear untouched, even if blurry from being blown up to this scale. Now let's take a look at how this photo could have been manipulated in the easiest possible manner.

In the various graphics applications that I've used over the years (Photoshop, Fireworks, Paint Shop Pro), there has always been a "paint bucket" fill tool. The paint bucket fill is just that, a tool that enables the user to "dump" a selected color in an area to fill it.

I created the following image using the replacement image now on the USA Today site.

Now compare:

The image on the left was created in less than 30 seconds using nothing more than the paint bucket fill tool in Fireworks to create something very similar to the "Zombie Rice" photo that was created in-house, and made its way past a photo editor (and perhaps others) and onto

When scaled back down, it is all but impossible to tell the difference between the 30 second paint bucket dump and resize, versus USA Today's claim of selecting a specific region of the photo, sharpening it, and then brightening it, to accidentally produce an unflattering photo.

Using Occam's razor, I'd suggest that it was unlikely that USA Today would spend a great deal of time to enhance such a small photo. I future suggest that the end result of USA Today's manipulated photo was quite possibly intentional, and accomplished by a "quick and dirty" technique similar to the one I used.

Now the most important question is how this intentionally manipulated image was created at USA Today, was placed into a story, made it past a photo editor, possibly a content editor, and into production. How did this photo manage to get past several layers of editorial review? Multiple instances of incompetence, or a wink and a nod?

Ethically, there is no excuse for this image making it online. Photographers and editors have a responsibility to the integrity of a photo and the personalities in those photos. Most news organizations take this responsibility very seriously, and photo editors have been dismissed for far less obvious offenses including this example from the Los Angeles Times.

This manipulated image specifically violates the National Press Photographers Association Digital Manipulation Code of Ethics, adopted in1991 by the NPPA Board of Directors:

As journalists we believe the guiding principle of our profession is accuracy; therefore, we believe it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way that deceives the public.

As photojournalists, we have the responsibility to document society and to preserve its images as a matter of historical record. It is clear that the emerging electronic technologies provide new challenges to the integrity of photographic images ... in light of this, we the National Press Photographers Association, reaffirm the basis of our ethics: Accurate representation is the benchmark of our profession. We believe photojournalistic guidelines for fair and accurate reporting should be the criteria for judging what may be done electronically to a photograph. Altering the editorial content ... is a breach of the ethical standards recognized by the NPPA.

USA Today clearly violated these long established guidelines. It remains to be seen how much they actually value the ethics and editorial standards they claim to adhere to.

Much more from Michelle Malkin's follow up post, USA TODAY REMOVES DOCTORED PHOTO. Malkin's original post DEMONIZING CONDI. My response to Malkin's original post Photo Ethics Eludes USA Today.

Update: Classical Values conducted a similar Photoshopping experiment. California Conservative offers up a version every bit as credible as the original.

From the Pen seems to have beaten us all to the story, but I don't know if I agree with Dan Riehl's assessment of the origins.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at October 26, 2005 11:21 PM | TrackBack

Under the razor theory, the most likely cause is giving the assignment to a low staff graphics person on barely minimum wage who did it the fastest why possible with the least amount of strokes while text messaging and/or talking on the phone and didn't really care if it was flattering or not. Also, Online images are very different depending on your chosen font size and screen resolution. I would think in general, most people really don't care what Condi looks like.

Posted by: Steve Talbert at October 27, 2005 12:52 AM

You might want to correct your post if you don't mind, though not a big deal. I didn't make any supposition as to the origins of the photo and acknowledged it was altered. All I said is that whatever happened also smoothed her cheeks and could have been done inadvertantly, perhaps by a lowly photo clerk as per above, or to make it look better given the por original around the eyes, they're almost blue. Also, I suggested waiting for an answer before accusing them of worse.

But allow me to posit a question to you as a blogger. How would you feel if you discovered the thing from a week ago, had both images on your site and found that MM had them up after and they were subsequently linked by Drudge, Glenn, ET AL? Then go read La Shawn's post where she points out that the individual who broke it got virtually no credit at all.

Sorry, I don't agree that that's the way the game is supposed to be played. And if a smaller blogger had done it, there would be hell to pay for them. I couldn't care less about the photo. As a matter of principle what irks me is this is the third time I am aware of that Malkin has done precisely the same thing - once to me - and so-called principled bloggers won't say a word about it. That's the real shame here, dude. IMO of course.

People don't get to stay at any reputable paper when they are caught plagarizing the work of others ... so, who are the blogs to criticize the MSM if we're going to be even worse because of some presumed pecking order?

Guess I was wrong to think that many bloggers had more scrupples and at least some balls. And that's not meant to be personal to you, by any means. But I see little truth to power around here these days when it is repeatedly one who is allegedly one of our own.


Posted by: Dan at October 27, 2005 01:32 AM


Michelle's post does credit and link to the original article at From The Pen. It's right there for all of us to see, so it's not her fault if we don't get the attribution right.


Posted by: Abe at October 27, 2005 02:58 AM

To coin GEN Patton, this item is going through the blogosphere, "like crap through a goose." It's everywhere, it's everywhere!

USA is caught and is now executing the time-tested liberal response; avoid responsibility at all cost! It's a Charlie Brown thing - the liberal MSM will pull the football every chance they get.

I think the point has been made and anything from now on is putting too fine a point on it.

Posted by: Old Soldier at October 27, 2005 07:31 AM

I was able to do the same using cheap Paint Shop Pro and an increase in the Brightness on just the eyes. Very easy do to and I'm no graphic artist.

No, this wasn't an error of "brightened a portion of Rice's face". This was on purpose to either make her look like a hideous demon, or the average Liberal.

Posted by: Shamalama at October 27, 2005 12:37 PM

I'm not seeing what Malkin did "wrong". She credited the blogger who first ran with the story. Is Riehl saying that no one should blogging about a subject that some one else blogs about first?

Posted by: craig henry at October 27, 2005 01:59 PM

The photoshop technique is not "changing the image" per-se, as it's not simply white-washing the eyes. Instead, it's selectively brightening the eyes. The exact same technique was used on this picture to make the spedometer unnaturally dark/shiny:

Adjusting the white balance of the entire picture is a critical step in photography. Going one step further and adjusting the brightness of specific areas of an image is considered by some to not be tampering with the image significantly more.

Posted by: David N at November 1, 2005 06:52 PM