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close this bookThe Courier N 158 - July - August 1996 - Dossier: Communication and the Media - Country Report: Cape Verde (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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close this folderCommunication and the media
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View the documentCurrent media in the English-speaking Caribbean
View the document'Doctoring' the image
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'Doctoring' the image

With modern computer technology, it is now very easy for publishers (and film-makers) to dabble with reality. Whereas in the past, you could be reasonably sure that what you saw was a fair representation of what actually happened, today there is no such guarantee.

Recently in the United Kingdom, one of the country's regional newspapers came in for criticism when it published a 'doctored' photograph of a well-known opposition politician. He was captured on film at a social function sitting at a table with a glass of beer in front of him. By the time the paper's computer experts had finished with the photo, it looked as if he was drinking champagne ! When the story broke, the journal thought it expedient to issue an immediate apology. For while this kind of misrepresentation may appear trivial, in the modern age, image is crucial for those who are involved in public life. Put simply, voters' are more likely to look kindly on beer-drinking politicians than on those whose favourite tipple is champagne.

There was a similar case involving an advertisement issued by a well-known car manufacturer. For their publicity in Britain, the company used a landscape photo portraying a selection of their employees. In Poland, the same picture was used but black and Asian workers were no longer to be seen. Their places in the line-up were miraculously taken by people of Caucasian appearance. The advertisers' rather surprising explanation was that this had been a 'mistake'!

Other recent victims of 'doctored' pictures or socalled 'photo collages' have included members of the European Parliament and a senior EC official, although these particular misrepresentations received very little publicity.

Should consumers of printed or broadcast material be entitled to assume that images are never tampered with? And if some doctoring is acceptable, where do you draw the line? The answer to the first question is clearly no. There are certain situations where photo or film enhancement techniques are unobjectionable. We sometimes use them on The Courier cover pages to remove blemishes or fill in gaps which may detract from the main image. In fashion advertising, it is common for the 'look' of the model to be altered. The aim here is to draw the reader's eye to the page so that their attention can then be focused on the product. More dramatic alterations may even be acceptable if it is evident to the reader that a change has been made. Satirical articles, for example, can sometimes be amusingly illustrated with obviously altered images.

Where the practice is reprehensible is where the picture has been changed in a way that leads the reader to draw false conclusions about what he or she is observing. The classic example of this is where the image of a person captured in one setting is placed against a different backdrop, without the reader being informed. This may be done to give either a more positive or a more negative impression (the latter approach is more usual) but in either case, it is dishonest. If a politician allows himself to be photographed on a Caribbean beach while on mission at the taxpayers' expense, even if he was only there during the lunch break for a quick dip, then he can't really complain. But if the picture was actually taken when he was on holiday in Majorca, and superimposed against a more exotic back ground, then both the 'victim' and the reader are being cheated.

There will always be borderline cases, but in principle, it ought to be possible to draw a reasonably clear distinction between 'right' and 'wrong' in this area.

Nonetheless, it is likely that distorted images will continue to be presented to us in the future. In pluralist societies, newspapers and broadcasters operate in a fiercely competitive environment and in theory, this should provide a deterrent. If one media organisation is found to have doctored images in a dishonest way, there will always be plenty of others willing to expose the misbehaviour.

In practice, however, the only real deterrent is the likelihood of a drop in circulation, or lower viewing figures. And while consumers may say they disapprove of journalistic dishonesty (whether in photographs or the written word), there is little evidence to suggest that they react by taking their custom elsewhere. Indeed, in some developed countries, the closer a journal sails to the wind, the more likely it is to enjoy a high circulation!

It used to be said that 'the camera never lies'.

Nowadays, we can't be so certain.

S.H.