South African newspaper the Citizen has admitted that it made a mistake by publishing a manipulated photograph on the front page of its Wednesday edition, after the cover elicited strong reactions from journalists about the ethics of editing news images.
The photograph, supplied by news agency Agence-France Presse (AFP), was taken after a suicide attack killed 12 people, including eight South African aviation workers, in Kabul, Afghanistan on September 18. In the original image, two bodies lie beside the charred skeleton of a minibus that was blown up in the attack. In the version that was published, the bodies have been digitally wiped from the picture.
The Citizen released a statement on Thursday, explaining that during an editorial meeting on Tuesday, the photograph was deemed too graphic to publish in its natural state, and a decision was taken to blur the bodies. Instead, they were “digitally cloned out of the photo,” apparently inadvertantly. “The photo should never have been published in that form,” said the Citizen’s Editor Martin Williams. “We regret this and are taking steps to ensure that it does not happen again,” continued the statement.
As the compact tabloid's ink was drying on Wednesday, outraged reactions began to ricochet across social networks. One source of controversy was whether a difference set of standards applies to the Kabul image and to a photograph taken when police opened fire on striking workers at South Africa’s Lomin Marikana mine in August, killing 34 people and injuring at least 78, which the newspaper printed unedited.
“Why show bodies of Marikana miners then aggressively edit out these bodies?” wondered freelance journalist Michelle Solomon on Twitter. “Are the bodies of white people more sacred than the bodies of poor black miners? This pic is just as gory as Marikana pics,” she added. “Actually, showing Marikana pictures was worse because dead could be identified – these people can’t be, faces turned away,” she continued in a third tweet, all the while researching and posting excerpts from ethics policies regarding news photographs.
Journalist Julian Rademeyer posted a picture of an editorial that was published in the Citizen today, explaining that, in the eyes of the newspaper, “This photo was not nearly as graphic as the Kabul one, which is why the bodies were not blurred.” Rademeyer, who has called the decision “scandalous,” later tweeted: “Where does it stop? Faked pictures passed off as news? Lies as fact?"
South African newspaper the Mail & Guardian noted that, according to the South African Press Code, "pictures shall not misrepresent or mislead nor be manipulated to do so." Taking its cues from the Twitter discussion, the article also cited the strict policies of major newspapers like The New York Times, whose Guidelines on Integrity state that “Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions).”
“The Citizen's motivation may be good, but they have pursued it unethically,” commented Anton Harber, a university journalism professor. “If the body was not acceptable to their audience—and one has to ask why others have been judged more acceptable—they should have used another picture, or cropped it, or moved it inside the paper and carried it with a warning, or at the very least have told readers that they had manipulated the picture,” he continued. Harber also questioned whether the newspaper had asked permission from the news agency that supplied the original photograph.
Contacted by email, a source at AFP's management in Paris said that “Citizen has made its apologies and AFP will not comment further."
How the picture came to be doctored as it was by accident remains a mystery. “‘It’s a basic, fundamental journalistic ethic that’s been so badly broken and now they want to blame it on a misunderstanding,” said a Citizen staffer, quoted anonymously by the Mail & Guardian. "The photographic department is feeling that their credibility is shot,” he added.
Photo courtesy of Twitter user @fgriebenow