Watch Your Tone!

By Matter

As PR pros we are always careful how we speak to reporters, clients, even our mothers. We choose our words carefully, making sure to provide the most factual yet vivacious descriptions possible. Of course there is a fine line between “emphasis” and “exaggeration,” and it’s a line that exists for photojournalists just as it does for us PR folk.  We can all remember varying cases where edited images have appeared in the media, but one recent occurrence has caused me to question where exactly the line falls for photojournalists.

A recent post on the Toronto Star’s website lays out the situation best, but the short version is an amateur photographer captured an incredible image of the Icelandic volcano in its smoke billowing glory, a truly amazing picture. A local reporter got hold of the picture and before issuing the image to a wire service, he used a technique called tone mapping to boost the contrast in the image, the result being some color shifting and increased color saturation in the image.  In its tweaked state, the image was distributed over the wire, only to be followed by a heavy typeset ADVISORY, which provided the newly discovered original image and an apology for the misleading photo.

As you can see above, the tweaked version looks different than what the photographer originally saw, but we’re not talking about a John Kerry-Jane Fonda composite job or Great Whites chasing helicopters here.  My question is, does this type of tone mapping constitute deception, or did the Icelandic editor simply take a lot of creative license with his visual representation of the scene?

From my own experience tone mapping images, I immediately recognize the technique (especially when keen-eyed photo editors point it out first). So I know that the scene is accurate, but I just can’t trust the colors I’m seeing here. I think it’s this basic understanding of the technique that makes the situation less troublesome to me, but I can see why folks were upset and felt misled, a little.

So, where do you fall along the continuum of this debate? Is it outright fraud or just a troublesome product of modern technology?

By the way, if you live in Iceland, I wouldn’t eat anything grown on that farm for a little while!