Column – Journalistic standards more important than ever

Published 5:24 pm Tuesday, March 14, 2023

A friend recently asked me to determine whether an old photo enlarger has value in today’s digital world. The short answer was, probably not much, since few people still shoot film in cameras, then develop that film in darkrooms.

The discussion brought back memories dating to college years when, as part of our indoctrination to journalism, we were taught the basics of film and print processing. We ran our own darkroom and our own weekly college newspaper, and its editing and production proved invaluable, particularly for those of us destined to manage dozens of small daily and weekly papers across Virginia.

Darkrooms and darkroom work were around for well over a century before photography became digital. A good darkroom technician could improve an image before printing it in final form. We would “dodge” portions of a photo that were poorly lit and “burn,” or add exposure, to an area that was overexposed and thus not clear.

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You could increase the “speed” of film to bring out images shot in poor light and thus increase the range of light in which photos could be shot.

What you couldn’t do, and what we never considered doing, was change the story that a photo told by manipulating the image on the film. The viewer had an absolute right to believe what they saw.

Because of the limits imposed by film technology, it required special talent to deceive back in the darkroom days, but it could be done, and very efficiently. Photo manipulation was considered a perfectly legitimate tool in advertising, where the “message” an image presented was considered wide open to creativity.

Not so with news photographs. They had to tell what the camera saw.

Today, digital photography and computerized photo technology have made it difficult to know whether the image you are seeing is real or concocted. 

“Photoshopping” a picture can still mean simply dodging and burning, sharpening an image or correcting color, but that’s just the beginning. Want to add a person or object to a photograph? Just cut and paste.

Photo manipulation can create images that are not only fake but hilarious. They can also be vicious, and often are.

One place you can still rely on finding honest photography is in serious newspapers, and though their numbers have decreased, the surviving newspapers and the wire services that help supply them with photo images are committed to an honest portrayal of the news. You can believe that the horrors of war in Ukraine, the tragic earthquake in Turkey and the floods in California are being honestly portrayed. Editors may decide a photograph is too graphic for the general distribution that puts their papers in the hands of young as well as old, and thus not use it, but the ones they do print are honest portrayals.

There is a National News Photographers Association that’s just as committed to integrity in photojournalism today as it was in the pre-digital era. Its members adhere to a strict code of ethics that news photographers take quite seriously. Their code insists that they present a photo subject comprehensively, that they avoid stereotyping individuals and groups, and work to avoid presenting their own biases in their work.

Professional news photographers avoid contributing to, altering or seeking to alter or influence events they are covering. 

And they absolutely “do not manipulate images in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”

Photography is only one element in ethical journalism, of course. That which is written by the nation’s professional journalists must also be dependable and, among community and metro papers across the country, it consistently is. Journalists follow a code of ethics for the written word that’s just as comprehensive as that followed by photographers. 

Right at the top of the list is taking responsibility for what one writes. Newspapers and the reporters who write for them still do that, just as they did a half-century ago.

There have always been exceptions and we all know, intuitively, what they are. The “grocery store tabloids” of yesteryear offered salacious and often totally fabricated stories, and their digital antecedents do likewise today in lots of products designed to titillate, confuse or help spread untruths and conspiracy theories of one flavor or another.

Newspapers, wire services and core broadcast networks still maintain an ethical underpinning, however, and thank God for it. You can still pick up a newspaper or open it online and expect its hard news to be factual and fact-checked. Newspapers make mistakes, and always have, but part of their code of conduct is to own up to those mistakes, so you’ll know soon enough that the mistake was made. 

Ethical reporting, including visual images, is an oasis in today’s information desert, and one that all who are interested in a world of truth should steer toward.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is