'Doctored' War Photos Ignite Controversy

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."

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