'Doctored' War Photos Ignite Controversy

The photographer was sleep-deprived and hungry, feeling the strain of weeks in a war zone. He'd already filed dozens of strong photographs, but under pressure to produce something that would stand out from the competition, he made a fateful choice: He digitally altered one of his pictures to make it more compelling.

This could describe Adnan Hajj, the freelance photographer for Reuters who was fired this week for doctoring two photographs from Lebanon. It's also the story of Brian Walski, a Los Angeles Times photographer who was fired in 2003 for merging two images of a British soldier and a crowd of Iraqis (in the altered image, the soldier appears to be pointing his gun at a man holding a child).

Photo manipulation has occurred since the days of the Civil War, and the ethical standards in place at most media organizations are higher than ever. But in recent years, media experts say they've seen an alarming rise in the frequency of doctored pictures making their way into the mainstream journalism.

"This should be a clarion call to media companies to increase their procedures in vetting images properly," says Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

At the same time, such tampering may be growing harder to get away with, thanks to the scrutiny of the blogosphere. It was blogger Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs who first sounded the alarm about Hajj's doctored Reuters photos, which eventually led the news agency to terminate its relationship with Hajj and pull all his work from its database.

Experts say the trend is fueled by a range of factors. Growing pressure in newsrooms to compete with a growing array of media outlets may tempt photographers to push ethical boundaries and editors to sacrifice scrutiny for speed.

New and widely available Photoshop technology has also created something of a slippery slope. Nearly all news photographs undergo some form of digital alteration these days ? from lightening to cropping, most of which is viewed throughout the industry as an acceptable and even necessary practice to produce professional-quality images.

Most instances of doctoring are fueled not by a political agenda but by a desire to create a memorable -- possibly Pulitzer-winning -- image.

"They're captivated by the prize," says David Perlmutter, an expert on war photography at the University of Kansas. "You get your one flag raising at Iwo Lima, and you're famous for 50 years."

Yet there's no question that altered pictures often have political implications, intended or not. Here at home, altered shots on magazine covers of former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and conservative pundit Ann Coulter led to accusations of bias (in both cases, critics alleged the alterations made the subjects considerably less attractive. Warner's classic gray suit and blue shirt were transformed into an odd brown and lavender, while Coulter's already thin figure was elongated to frightening proportions).

When altered photographs are coming from a war zone, the sensitivities -- and the stakes -- are even higher.

Hajj produced 920 photographs for Reuters, and so far, the news agency says it has found only two instances of doctoring. One was a picture of Beirut after an Israeli air strike on which Hajj imposed additional and darker plumes of smoke. The other showed an Israeli fighter jet dropping what appeared to be three flares, when the original image had just one. According to Reuters spokeswoman Samantha Topping, Hajj denied deliberately altering the pictures, saying he was simply cleaning up the quality of the image, an explanation Topping declined to address directly, except to say "it's a huge breach of our policy," and that Reuters was now tightening its editing procedures.

But in an indication of how politically charged the debate has become, bloggers have also accused Hajj of staging some photos taken after the bombing at Qana. Reuters says it has reviewed Hajj's Qana photographs and "we categorically reject" any suggestion that they were staged, noting that he was one among a number of international journalists documenting the event at the time.

The incident also raises a number of broader questions for the media, such as the potential dangers of using local freelance journalists to cover a conflict. Most major news organizations rely heavily on stringers, since they offer valuable, on-the-ground knowledge and perspective that outsiders typically don't possess, a trend that has only increased with cutbacks in foreign bureau staffing. But often, media organizations don't know enough about the motives or even the abilities of those they've hired.

"It's a question of not just bias but incompetence," says Chris Hanson, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and a former reporter for Reuters.

A similar problem may be looming with the growing use of "citizen journalists." As mainstream media organizations become increasingly willing to publish a cell phone photo or video taken by a random bystander at an event, the opportunities for fraud are likely to multiply dramatically.

Then there's the fact that it was bloggers who discovered the fraud, rather than Reuters's own photo editors. Since the photos were transmitted over the weekend, when newsrooms tend to be short-staffed, it's possible normal procedures were bypassed. Irby of Poynter believes that eventually the deception would have come out anyway, saying he talked to several photo editors around the country who had noticed something wrong with the pictures by Monday and had put in calls to Reuters.

Still, the images had been in circulation for roughly 20 hours, "that's a long time," he says. "I think Reuters takes the hit appropriately in this case."