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Image Swapping on the Front Lines: Cosmetic or Cosmic Change?; Small Online Media Gets Big Kudos

L.A. Times photog axed

This is a week to remember -- and forget -- for the Los Angeles Times. The paper is rumored to be up for six Pulitzer Prizes, leading the journalistic pack. But it also lived through the horror of running an altered news photo from Iraq on its front page -- and syndicating the photo to other papers to compound its agony. Photographer Brian Walski was quickly fired for the transgression, in clear violation of the newspaper's policy forbidding "altering the content of news photographs."

The photograph was of a British soldier motioning with his hand and gun at a crowd of Iraqis, with one man nearby holding a baby. In the original photos, the man with the baby wasn't looking directly at the soldier when he pointed his weapon -- only when the composite was formed. Los Angeles Times managing editor Dean Baquet told The Washington Post that the firing was a "painful and easy" decision, and that Walski's reason for compositing was to improve the picture for aesthetic reasons.

A Hartford Courant employee found the manipulation by noting people in the background who appeared twice in the composite. The New York Post's Todd Venezia took this information to believe that Walski manipulated the photo "to make it appear the crowd of civilians was larger than it really was." More likely it was to make the foreground characters look more balanced.

Poynter had the best details on what went on, how the mistake was caught, the reaction at the Times and even the brief e-mail from Walski, apologizing to his colleagues and offering no excuses. Almost every journalistic expert has come out to defend the Times and bash Walski's manipulation, noting correctly that altering news images is a slippery slope: You allow one minor change and then everything's subject to change.

But it took a Slashdot forum (and not a "relevant link" on the Poynter story) to unearth a previous Poynter story on just how much newsmagazines manipulate images, on their covers and inside. Newsweek's assistant managing editor/design admits that "we do whatever color balancing is needed to prepare images for printing. This can include fixing blemishes or small wrinkles...In general we will not change a photo in any way that distorts its editorial message." Time's deputy photo editor says "[Photos] might be cropped, which may or may not give the viewer a different point of view from the intent of the photo."

The reality is that photo manipulation happens on a lot of photogs' laptops, in postproduction in newsrooms, and even the photo shoot is often staged. One Slashdot poster, Craig Berry, brought up the gray area better than any journalism expert so far: "The odd thing is that all photographs we see in print or on major media outlets are altered. Either in the darkroom or using a computer, photographs are routinely cropped, retinted, lightened or darkened, and otherwise manipulated to make them easier or more pleasing to view. Some will argue that this is qualitatively different from rearranging content in the photograph, but the line is actually rather vague."


Drudge as online media mogul

Not everyone agrees with Matt Drudge's style or even that he's a journalist at all, but no one can argue that the guy doesn't know how to make money. Business 2.0's Geoff Keighley shows us the money behind Drudge Inc. (or at least his best guesstimates), even if it's slightly obvious that a Web site run by two people who do no reporting have little overhead. Keighley goes a bit overboard calling Drudge the "biggest, richest media mogul on the Web" because he brings in $800,000 per year, or $400K per employee.

Keighley does a nice job of explaining how Drudge wields his power, helping drive traffic to linked stories and sites, and how he uses an unnamed assistant and legions of sources to get information. But what brings all these millions of site visitors back, making the advertising model work for him? It's the whiff of the scoop, and even if Drudge gets it wrong, he often gets there first (or at least points to the first report). And that's what much of the news-hungry, gossip-mongering public wants, fact-checking be damned.

Also in for some recent kudos were top webloggers Mickey Kaus and Josh Marshall, who the Los Angeles Times' Tim Rutten said have provided "the most sophisticated and analytic online commentary" during the war. Both bloggers have been doing deep study on the question of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's strategy of using fewer ground troops in Iraq, with a conclusion that he wants to make Iraq a blueprint for further incursions into Syria, North Korea and Iran. Rutten notes that the political landscape in the Middle East is being reshaped by the war, but that the media landscape is also being altered, with early investigative reporting coming via the Net.

Mark Glaser currently writes technology features for TechWeb, occasional features for The New York Times' Circuits section, marketing material for Comcast Online, and a bi-weekly e-mail newsletter for the Online Publishers Association, whose membership includes most major media companies online. That won't stop him from taking cheap potshots at these outlets, when necessary. You can contact him with any juicy tidbits about online journalism at [email protected].

read past glaser online columns