Topic: Science & Technology

Image Manipulation Ethics and Congressman DeWine

Ohio Congressman Mike DeWine has been under fire because the ad agency that produced one of his TV campaign ads used a digitally manipulated still photograph of the World Trade Center rather than an authentic video clip to accompany DeWine’s claim that his opponent was soft on national security. U.S. News and World Report decided this was headline news, mostly because an alert reporter for the magazine figured out that the image had to be fake because it showed smoke from the towers plowing in the wrong direction. Now DeWine’s opponents are using the “deception” to attack his credibility. “Instead of being honest, he’s using an ad that at first we knew distorted the facts, and now we know distorted the tragedy; that’s shameful,” said a spokesperson for DeWine’s Democratic opposition, Sherrod Brown.

But is using a computer-created image in this context really deceptive, not to mention “shameful”?

If DeWine used an accurate artist’s drawing of the World Trade Center on 9/11, nobody would (presumably) say that it was a misrepresentation. What exactly is dishonest or unethical about creating an image that depicts the post-bombing World Trade Center out of a pre-bombing picture, particularly if the only discernable inaccuracy is the direction of the smoke stream? We can all agree that the tragedy of 9/11 was not about the smoke.

We are in a confusing era in which photographic records are inherently unreliable, subject to convincing and virtually undetectable technological alterations. There are both ethical and practical reasons to insist that those who use photographs take care to state what is real and what is not whenever there is a chance that a reader or viewer might be misled. Thus it is important to establish an ethical standard: if a photograph of something real has been altered in any way by the editor, publisher, artist or author using it, there should be full disclosure.

Doing this is especially crucial in certain situations:

  • When the photo is being reproduced as proof of an assertion.
  • When the original, unaltered image would give an objective viewer a different impression than the image being published.
  • When a news organization, which has a duty to always present facts without manipulation or distortion, is using an image.
  • When the photo itself tells a story or conveys information crucial to associated text.
  • When the caption to a photograph or image makes a statement about the manipulated image that would not be true of the original image.
  • When there is any chance that the image will confuse future researchers or historians.

To be clear: the proper ethical standard is that every use of a photographic image in any way altered or manipulated should be disclosed. Not to do so is to invite abuse and deception. But that does not mean that every use of a manipulated image is in fact deceptive.

DeWine’s ad isn’t a news story or a photography contest or designed to supplement a historical record. Whether or not its images of the World Trade Center are authentic has nothing to do with its purpose. Are those who see the ad being deceived about whether the attack occurred or what it looked like? Does the manufactured image make DeWine’s argument about his opponent any more or less persuasive? Does it matter in any way how the smoke was blowing? The Brown camp’s statement that the ad’s imagery “distorted the tragedy” is absurd. How does inadvertently misrepresenting the direction of the smoke “distort the tragedy?”

To assess whether a particular photographic image manipulation is deceptive, it is useful to apply the old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” An image appears in an ad, essay, newspaper or book for a particular purpose to communicate something. If the “words” conveyed by the image would be misleading and false were they reduced to text, then the image itself is dishonest. DeWine’s Twin Towers image would clearly be fraudulent if it appeared in a History Channel program with a narrator intoning that “here you can clearly see the direction of the billowing smoke cloud.” But the ad only intended to show an image of the 9/11 tragedy that said, “Remember this? The Twin Towers burning? Thousands killed by terrorist action on U.S. soil?” Virtually any image of the World Trade Center— real, manipulated, drawn or computer generated—would communicate that message. Indeed, DeWine’s ad agency has yet to explain why it bothered to fake an image when there were so many real ones that would have communicated the same thing.

The Scoreboard’s conclusion: there was no substantive “deception” here, only the basic deception of presenting an image as genuine when it in fact was not. The significant content of the image neither intended nor conveyed a false message. And if there is anything shameful about the ad, it relates to his using visceral 9/11 imagery as a substitute for substantive political and policy arguments in his campaign. The agency that created the ad violated an important ethical standard by using a doctored image without labeling it as such, and DeWine must accept responsibility and be accountable for the conduct of those he hires when they act on his behalf.

This was unethical conduct that arose from an ad agency’s sloppiness, not a candidate’s intent to deceive. The breathless coverage of it by U.S. News (which has manipulated its own share of images) and the excessive “gotcha!” response of Ohio Democrats were wildly out of proportion to what actually happened, and were arguably more misleading than the image itself.

Comment on this article


Business & Commercial
Sports & Entertainment
Government & Politics
Science & Technology
Professions & Institutions

The Ethics Scoreboard, ProEthics, Ltd., 2707 Westminster Place, Alexandria, VA 22305
Telephone: 703-548-5229    E-mail: ProEthics President

© 2007 Jack Marshall & ProEthics, Ltd     Disclaimers, Permissions & Legal Stuff    Content & Corrections Policy