Fake News And Stock Photography

Posted on 3/27/2017 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

A writer for the Boston Globe asked me to discuss the role, if any, that stock photos plays in fake news. “Can or should the stock photo industry do anything to curb the use of its photos on fake news sites.”

Stock photography is not “Fake.” This is not to say that there aren’t some photos that are designed to be outright distortions of the truth, but the vast majority of stock photos are taken with the hope of showing an actual event or something that illustrates real life.

There are two types of stock photography – news pictures and pictures designed for commercial use.


With stock news pictures the same rules apply as with any creditable news organization – the images must be an accurate representation of the situation and the truth.

That’s not always easy. The photographer has to make split second decisions about where to point the camera and what to ignore. There is a natural tendency to want to photograph the most exciting thing that is happening. Sometimes, what happened in a split second is not an accurate representation for the general tone of an event.

To the question as to “whether the (stock photo) industry can or even should do anything to curb the use of their photos on acknowledged fake news sites,” I think that would be impossible. As far as I know no website or publication says they are publishing “fake news.” There is no authority that determines which sites are “fake news” and which aren’t. In addition, even sites that publish fake news, probably publish accurate, truthful stories occasionally.

As far as I can tell the only way to determine what is “fake news” from “real news” is when someone produces evidence that a particular story, or bit of information is false. How would any photographer or stock agency be able to determine that the story a particular photo illustrates is fake or real? The industry has no way of checking, or monitoring before publication how a particular image will be used, or in what context.

Deciding whether a particular photo will accurately represent the context of a story is the job of the editor. Neither the photographer nor the agent is informed of the story context before the image is used. All the photographer and agent can do is insure that the caption information provided with the image is accurate and the photographer was not purposely trying to mislead.

There are an increasing percentage of the images available on stock photo sites, or just downloaded from the Internet, that are taken by amateurs who just happen onto something of interest, or have an agenda they are trying to promote. Often these image producers have no sense of journalistic ethics. Stock agents do what they can to determine the accuracy of the images they represent. The challenge for editors is to only work with trusted sources.

Commercial Use

Non-news stock pictures are produced with the hope that they will be used to help sell a product or service, or provide a visual illustration of something (a rabbit, for example). For the most part stock photo customers are looking for images that are well lit, easy to “read” and focus on the subject of interest. If a book publisher wants a picture of a rabbit and I show them a picture of a back yard with a rabbit that is almost impossible to see in the far corner of a garden taking up maybe 1/100th of the total picture area, the customer is not likely to buy or use that picture. What the customer wants is a nice, clean shot of just a rabbit with no other distracting elements in the picture.

At the present time there is a lot of discussion on the web and in the press about wanting stock photos to be more “real” and “natural” rather than arranged. In most cases the writers are referring to pictures that include people.

It is often hard to tell what they mean by “real.” Some seem to interpret the term as meaning that all office situations should be cluttered and everyone should be dressed down like casual Friday’s. The people should also look harassed and bored with their jobs rather than friendly and getting along. And the environment needs to look like its in a warehouse, not a modern office building.

A good example is this story. (http://www.business2community.com/strategy/make-company-authentic-2017-01752917#zZktOq9jVLRIK5BO.97 ) I admit that neither of the pictures shown are good stock photos. The one on the left, while it shows an upscale office, is too hokey. There are many much better pictures in stock photo files that show people much more engaged in a conference situation in an upscale office.

However, no commercial user in their right mind would pay money for the picture on the right. They would never use such a pictures to try to sell their product or service. Even if that were the way their office looked, and how uninterested their employees always are, they wouldn’t want to use such a picture to represent their company.

I suppose it they were trying to say that work is boring and bad and they were going to couple this shot with one of people partying in a bar or on the beach they might want to use a picture like this to make the negative point, but for the most part stock pictures that sell need to look at the positive, wholesome, uplifting side of things. Most professional stock image producers recognize that fact.

Role Stock Photos Play

It seems to me that many photos can be used to misrepresent the actual facts of a situation. Staff photographers may be assigned to take pictures that show the negative of something and ignore the positive. It is not just stock photos. Photos taken by anyone can be used to misrepresent.

If a Boston Globe staff photographer, or a freelancer assigned by the Globe, is asked to photograph a particular subject then it is the Globe’s responsibility to make sure that the photo does not misrepresent what they are about to say in their article. The more the news media comes to rely on images created by amateurs the harder this becomes.

If the Globe is using a photo from a stock agency, then the Globe must determine from the agent, and trust that the agent has done some due diligence, that the photo is an accurate representation of the event the Globe is about to report on.

Now that everyone is a photographer and everyone is posting pictures online, it has become much more difficult to determine if any image is an accurate and fair representation of the situation or if the photographer has an agenda to promote. In addition, with Photoshop and other software programs it is now so easy to manipulate images that any image, published in any way may no longer be an accurate representation of what the photographer actually captured.

This is not an easy problem to solve, but it is important to recognize that it is a problem with all photography, not just stock photography. More and more everyone must rely on unverified sources to keep up with the ever breaking news. This is true not only for the sites that have few if any investigative reporters, but even for the major news media that can’t ignore what the web sites are reporting, and must take time to fact check and verify as much of what they publish as possible.

Copyright © 2017 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.  


  • Paul Melcher Posted Mar 28, 2017
    "Stock photography is not “Fake.” " ???? There is nothing more fake than commercial stock photography. the models, the lighting, the location, the situation, the retouching, everything is set up.

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