Sunday, July 03, 2005

Photo credits and the Public Editor ... If you're looking for a particular instance of how the internet is changing the news media, you'd do well to consider today's column by Byron Calame, the public editor of the New York Times.

Calame's column has to do with a photograph that accompanied the June 12 "Interrogating Ourselves" cover story in the Times Magazine. Across from the title page of the article, Calame notes, the Magazine ran
a color photograph with a mid-torso view from the rear of a person with wrists handcuffed. Below the plastic handcuffs, a red stain ran down from one wrist across the soiled palm onto the fingers. The credit at the bottom of the facing page: "Photographs by Andres Serrano."

But there wasn't any explanation that the photograph had been staged. There was no caption. Four pages later, the same was true for the full-page staged photograph of water torture. The cover picture of a person with a sandbag hood also was identified only as a photograph by Mr. Serrano. [emphasis added]

When Calame aired his concern internally, the response, evidently, was that

top editors seem confident that readers can sort out - and allow for - differences in journalistic tone and practice from one section to another. Readers have long understood the difference between the news columns and the editorial pages, these editors reason, and the Magazine and Book Review are just other distinct parts of the package.

Yet on the website, the various sections within the Times are not separated with the same distinctiveness. Although rubrics like "Week in Review" or "Times Magazine" always appear above the online versions of articles, the placard is typically faded and, moreover, easy for the casual reader to either miss completely or dismiss as irrelevant. The result is that when photographs are published online without due specificity, the editors can no longer assume that the reader can distinguish staged photographs from real ones simply by which section they appear in.

What's so unique about Calame's column -- and the reason I bring it up -- is that his concern already seems to have prompted a reaction. This week the Magazine has credited its photographs in far more detail; it lists everyone from the photographers themselves to those responsible for "digital manipulation".

Would such a swift and noticeable response have occurred if the Magazine's editors were concerned only with its print version? I don't think so. If Calame hadn't alerted the editors to the perils of web publishing, there's no reason to believe that they wouldn't have relied, as before, on the tired assumption that "the reader" can understand the difference between what's staged and what's real, and that, therefore, no one will hold them accountable to make distinctions between depictions of natural and artificial reality.

In this instance, then, the unprecedented openness of the web has produced greater accountability, not less. And since the conventional wisdom holds that the opposite is true, this is no small accomplishment for Calame -- especially considering it's still his first month on the job.


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