February 24, 1994, Thursday


LENGTH: 617 words

HEADLINE: What's Fair in Changing Photos?

Let Pictures Speculate, Just Like Words

BYLINE: By Mitchell Stephens. Mitchell Stephens is chairman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at New York University and author of "A History of News."

NEW YORK NEWSDAY covered its front page last week with a photograph appearing to show Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan practicing together in Norway - well before the two skaters actually did practice together in Norway. Individual photos of Harding and Kerrigan had been blended together by a computer.

This raised some hackles. "A composite photograph is not the truth," The New York Times quoted Stephen D. Isaacs, acting dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, as stating. "It is a lie and, therefore, a great danger to the standards and integrity of what we do."

But if journalists are to exploit the full potential of visual communication, watchdogs like Isaacs are going to have to quiet themselves. Such computer-generated composite photos, and their video cousins, are needed to enable pictures to better tell the news.

Journalism critics often complain that an increasing reliance upon images has made the news more superficial. But how can images probe deeper unless they are given the same freedom words have: the freedom to speculate, predict, hypothesize, compare and juxtapose - the freedom, in other words, to present what has not actually occurred.

It is not as if New York Newsday's editors hid what they were doing: The photo's caption explained that "Tomorrow, they'll really take to the ice together" and that this was a "composite illustration." Those words might have been set in larger type, but they were there. And a headline printed over the photo made clear that the pictured event had not yet taken place: "Tonya, Nancy To Meet At Practice."

Obviously, any efforts by journalists to use the new computer-photo and videotape-editing equipment to deceive would be unconscionable. But why should properly labeled photos or videotape always be limited to showing only the literal truth? Words aren't. It is not literally true that those who were offended by New York Newsday's composite photo are "watchdogs"; their "hackles" were not literally "raised."

It is possible to imagine journalistic use for a (carefully labeled) composite photograph showing, for example, a huge President Bill Clinton peering down upon the city of Sarajevo or a perspiring Clinton arm-wrestling Sen. Bob Dole? Why not a (carefully labeled) photo of Columbia's Isaacs in which the hairs on the back of his neck appear to be raised? Why can't photos, like the graphics that increasingly accompany news stories, illustrate as well as report? Graphic artists take similar liberties all the time without being accused of lying.

And why must photos always be limited to speaking in the past tense? Why can't (carefully labeled) pictures sometimes be allowed to speculate on what might happen? "This is what the proposed mall would look like." "Here is how he might look after the surgery." "Tonya and Nancy will practice in the same place." Words are not denied opportunities to describe the future.

The problem, the watchdogs might say, is that a speculative picture seems more real, and therefore can be more misleading, than a speculative sentence. Don't we, in other words, have different expectations for photographs and videotape than we have for words or cartoons or graphics? Probably. But, with the help of careful labels, our expectations are simply going to have to change.

We already watch movies in which bicycles fly and television commercials in which it snows in the desert. For most of us, seeing has already stopped being exactly equivalent to believing. Seeing, like reading, is a method of understanding. In their efforts to bring us nearer to the truth, responsible journalists have to be allowed to take full advantage of that method.