10 News photos that took retouching too far

Many news photographs are Photoshopped here and there to increase clarity or to optimize for print or online display. But there have been several instances where retouching has been pushed too far, changing the original intent or accuracy of the photo.

National Geographic, February 1982

The revered magazine was accused of altering a photograph so that the Egyptian pyramids were closer together and thus fit on the vertical cover. The mag’s editors were allegedly unapologetic about creating a more aesthetically pleasing cover. Rich Clarkson, director of photography at National Geographic during the time, said he had no ethical problem with combining two photographs into a single cover picture, although “some publications could start abusing.”

OJ Simpson, TIME Magazine, June 1994


When a darkened mugshot of troubled football star appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine, it was deemed artistic interpretation. Critics accused the mag of blackening OJ Simpson’s skin to make him appear more animalistic and incite racial sentiments. It didn’t help that an unaltered photo of Simpson appeared on a Newsweek cover that same week.

Soldier in Basra, Los Angeles Times, March 2003

Original photos

Published photo

Photographer Brian Walski was fired from his position at the Los Angeles Times after it was discovered that two news photographs of a gun-toting soldier had been combined to create a more intense photo. When later asked why he had digitally manipulated the photo and risked his career Walski replied: “I knew what I was doing. It looked good. It looked better than what I had, and I said ‘wow.'”

Condoleezza Rice, USA Today, October 2005

Original, published photo

An Associate Press photo that appeared on the USA Today website showed then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with unusually menacing eyes, a result of too much retouching. Some questioned whether the effect had been created deliberately as it was difficult to easily replicate. The offending photo was quickly removed and replaced with a version much closer to the original and an apology from the paper’s photo editor.

Tibetan railroad, Liu Weiqiang, 2006

If this award-winning photo of Tibetan antelopes and a nearby train seems a bit askew, it’s because it is a combination of two separate photographs.

Photographer Liu Weiqiang merged the images after waiting for two weeks for the perfect photo with no success. Despite his earnestness, he was eventually blacklisted by several Chinese news outlets.

The Charlotte Observer, July 2006

The image of a firefighter against a blazing sky, shot by award-winning photographer Patrick Schneider, was later revealed to be a retouched version of the original in which the sky appeared to be a “brownish-gray.” Schneider had previously been reprimanded for adding intensity in the color and backgrounds of his photos and was eventually fired from his position.

Beirut fires, Reuters, August 2006

Original photo

Published photo

Reuters was accused of bias against Israel when a doctored photo of the capital city of Lebanon was released by the wire service. The photo, submitted by Lebanese freelance photographer Adnan Hajj, shows (badly) cloned smoke and buildings and a darkened skyline. Reuters ultimately broke all ties with Hajj, who was accused of retouching other photos as well.

The Toledo Blade, April 2007

Veteran news photographer and Pulitzer Prize finalist Allan Detrich resigned from his post at the Blade after it was discovered that at least 79 of his photos had been Photoshopped beyond the standards of the paper. In the photo below, a ball had been added to increase the drama of a basketball game.

Original, published photo

The Blade later removed all of Detrich’s photos from its website and issued an in-depth explanation and apology.

Papal delegation, Liberty Times, December 2007

In the previous examples, the photographs were retouched to enhance the beauty or impact. The following photo was edited to remove a rival publisher (center).

Original photo

Published photo

The Taiwanese newspaper was accused of digitally removing United Daily News Wang Shaw-lan from a photo of a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. Liberty Times reporter Chang Ning-hsing said she edited out the publisher because the picture was too large and that Wang was not an “essential presence.”

Klavs Bo Christensen, April 2009

After submitting his stunning photos of Haiti to a Danish photo contest, Christensen was asked to submit the original RAW files as well. The difference was remarkable and the contest judges disqualified the photos, calling them “extreme” and “unacceptable.” Christensen admitted that he had heavily processed the photos, but maintained that the result was within his limits.

Original photo

Published photo

In many newsrooms it is unethical to pass off a retouched photo as reality. Ideally, retouching of a news photograph should be limited to basic exposure and color correction, cropping, resizing, or conversion to grayscale. Any Photoshopping that alters the meaning of the original photo should be labeled as a “news illustration” in the caption so the viewer understands the photo has been altered.

Retouching may seem innocent, but can have a profound effect on the way we remember an event, according to a 2007 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

“Any media that employ digitally doctored photographs will have a stronger effect than merely influencing our opinion – by tampering with our malleable memory, they may ultimately change the way we recall history,” said researcher Dario Sacchi.

For more on the ethics of news photography, check out the National Press Photographers Association’s code of ethics.

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