Evil Condoleezza Rice

[Edited Condoleezza Rice Photograph]

Rice aimed to reassure jittery lawmakers over the course of the war in Iraq.
By Mikhail Metzel, AP

The above photograph of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was posted on USA Today in a story about US Troops in Iraq. This photograph caused concern because some of their readers suspected the editor wanted to demonize Rice by making her look like exactly that, a demon. Her eyes show an evil cat-like stare. This became less of an issue about choice of photo and instead about manipulation of photography when the original image was found on other Associated Press syndicators, proving USA Today's was a manipulation.

[Original Condoleezza Rice Photograph]

The newspaper became aware and replaced the photograph in their online story with the original photo and releasing this editor's note:

Editor's note: The photo of Condoleezza Rice that originally accompanied this story was altered in a manner that did not meet USA TODAY's editorial standards. The photo has been replaced by a properly adjusted copy. Photos published online are routinely cropped for size and adjusted for brightness and sharpness to optimize their appearance. 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.

Of course, news-pundits who happen to also be digital artists attempted to replicate the photograph in the way the editor's note claimed. The result was that special attention must have been given to the eyes only. As well, no brightness and sharpness tools would triangulate the eyes. This was a special edit, and a badly-performed one as the eyes don't even look real. The obvious flaw that started the suspicion and investigation.

This example isn't an issue or really anything strange in partisan politics. It is an issue in the larger scope of news photography because there have been larger and more significant edits that change the story a photograph can tell. For example, adding a cigarette smoke to a political figure's photograph, removing a gun from a protester that is carrying one, adding headcovering to a woman's photograph, and copying and pasting additional people to a background to make a crowd look larger. These examples are real. Photomanupulation is common and can even be fun, but in the news it is an ethical issue. When used improperly, it can backfire on the credibility of the media organizations that use them. Media readers are used to incorrect and biased photo captions, but have always relied on the photograph itself as evidence and proof to any news story. Things will can never be that simple again. Readers will have to fact-check so extensively until there is no trust left between news reporters and their reader.

October 27, 2005