What Is Reality?

Posted on 12/23/2015 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

The newsmedia struggles with the concept of reality and unbiased reporting, but what is reality?

Is reality what can be recorded on film? Is it a JPEG rather than a RAW file? Is it only what is recorded in a video regardless of what might have been happening moments before the video started recording?

If a digital file has been adjusted, or manipulated, can it still be an accurate representation of the truth of a situation? Does a reporter’s decision of what information to collect and what to ignore or disregard have any bearing on the accuracy of the report? Does a photographer’s choice of angle from which to shoot, or the moment to click the shutter have any bearing on the accuracy of what is recorded?

Does the information a subject or organization chooses to expose, or withhold, have any bearing on the truth or accuracy of the information provided or the image shown? Is the bias of the reporter, photographer or news organization relevant in determining accurate truth?

The news media is obsessed with uncovering accurate truth. However, not only is that difficult when everyone involved is altruistic and focused on the greater good of humanity, in the real world there are usually several conflicting degrees of self interest involved in any reported event.

Looking For More Accuracy

With that in mine a Reuters photo editor recently sent the following note to freelance photographers:
"I’d like to pass on a note of request to our freelance contributors due to a worldwide policy change. In future, please don’t send photos to Reuters that were processed from RAW or CR2 files. If you want to shoot raw images that’s fine, just take JPEGs at the same time. Only send us the photos that were originally JPEGs, with minimal processing (cropping, correcting levels, etc)."

A Reuters spokesperson told PetaPixel, "As eyewitness accounts of events covered by dedicated and responsible journalists, Reuters Pictures must reflect reality. While we aim for photography of the highest aesthetic quality, our goal is not to artistically interpret the news."

But we need to recognize that the choices a freelance photographer makes about what event to cover, the subjects on which to focus, where to stand and when to click the shutter are also interpretations of the event. In addition, the photographer’s knowledge of the subject and previous experiences play a role.

The proved accuracy of previous reports provides some credibility to the photographer’s decision. If an image is the first a photographer has ever submitted, and the editor knows nothing about the photographer or his or her character, then the editor has very little on which to base a decision about the accuracy of the image.
Given journalistic trends of relying more and more on images provided by amateurs and event participants, with no sense of a responsibility to journalistic ethics, but with an agenda, it seems more likely that we are moving away from accuracy and truth in reporting.

Moreover, if the photographer is only paid for his or her efforts when the image is actually used, the photographer is incentivized to produce images that are striking enough in their artistic or editorial quality to grab the picture editor’s interest, rather than offering an image that might be a more accurate rendition of the whole situation the photographer experienced.

What We Lose

The desire for accuracy is understandable, but pretending to control or eliminate misinformation by making image manipulation difficult, if not impossible, will do little to solve the underlying problem. It is like treating a traffic accident victim in serious condition with a band aid or a stern reprimand. It won’t result in a more truthful report; it just pretends to solve the problem.

Proper journalistic ethics involves much more than the degree of photo manipulation. In the 2015 World Press Photo contest 20% of the entries in the penultimate round were disqualified after comparing submissions to the unmodified RAW files. However, it is unclear whether any of those disqualified photos gave readers and viewers an inaccurate understanding of the events they recorded.

World Press Photo jury chairperson Michele McNally said, "A large number were rejected for removing or adding information to the image, for example, like toning that rendered some parts so black that entire objects disappeared from the frame.” (When we used to make prints in the darkroom from B&W negatives we called that ‘burning’ and ‘dodging.’) “The jury — which was flexible about toning, given industry standards — could not accept processing that blatantly added or removed elements of the picture."

Banning RAW photos entirely raises other issues. Most photographers find that RAW shots capture more dynamic range and detail at the moment of exposure and can look dramatically better after editing than JPEGs where the settings are locked in and can’t be reversed. White balance is a non-issue with RAW, but must be set properly before JPEG capture. White balance adjustment can be difficult in the fast-moving and dangerous environments where freelancers often find themselves.

On the other hand when speed is an issue almost all RAW images need some degree of processing while JPEGs that are more an approximation of what the camera thinks will look good don’t. But does that extra speed provide a more accurate understanding of the report?

Certainly, more accurate news and analysis is needed. This may not be the way to get there.

Copyright © 2015 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


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