The Digital Journalist
The Case of the Missing Limb
April 2004

I don't know how many times we have to ask newspapers "what part of not manipulating photographs don't you understand?"

When the disastrous bombing of Spanish railroad trains took place near Madrid last month, photographer Pable Torres Guerrero took a horrific photograph of survivors along the tracks. This photograph was used on front pages around the world. On the lower left of the frame is a severed arm that had been blown out of the train. It was an icon of a terrorist attack.

However, many publications, including the London Daily Telegraph, The Sun, The Times, and Daily Mail decided that the severed limb was too much to have readers see at breakfast. So they solved the problem by either graying out the offending limb, or removing it entirely by photo shop.

THIS IS INDEFENSIBLE. Newspapers are supposed to present the news in an honest context. This was a news photograph. It was not a photographic illustration. If the newspapers felt that the photograph might cause readers distress, they had the option of using another one.

This is a massive breach of journalistic ethics. You may not "clean up" a news photograph to suit your audience. The Russians did this for years, removing people from reviewing stands when they fell out of favor. In the west, journalists viewed these efforts with derision... "what do you expect from the Communists?"

But in the west, journalists are supposed to have a higher sense of journalistic ethics. Therefore, the decision to "clean up" this photograph puts the editors of these papers in the same class as the politburo in the Kremlin. If these newspapers are serious about credibility the editors who authorized this manipulation should be fired on the spot.

The News Photographer, the publication of the National Press Photographers Association, says in its current editorial:

"An image must establish the truth and context of a newsworthy moment. An altered image is a lie.

We believe that the public is ill served when elements within the frame are reduced or removed in an attempt to soften the horror of the moment. If one unaltered image is too graphic for public consumption, find another. One must not alter a graphic image in an attempt to protect public sensibilities.

Removing a bloody body part from a photograph sends the public an untrue and unfortunate message. Removing a victim's remains from a photograph sends the message that someone who died is anonymous. Removing a person's blood-soaked limb from a photograph tells the public that someone who died is invisible.

The victims of terrorism must never be anonymous. The victims of terrorism must never be invisible."

We couldn't agree more. What part of this do these editors not understand?