‘NY Post’ Among Pubs That Digitally Altered Virginia Tech Photo

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By: Daryl Lang/PDN Online

Another week, another lesson about image manipulation in the press.

At least two major publications — The New York Post and People — digitally obscured a portion of a photo from the Virginia Tech shootings.

In the photo, emergency personnel are seen carrying injured student Kevin Sterne out of the Norris Hall classroom building, his clothes soaked with blood. Standards being what they are, the concern about the photograph was not the shocking amount of blood, but whether the student’s penis was visible.

The photo is one of several taken at the scene of the April 16 shooting by Roanoke Times photographer Alan Kim and transmitted hours later worldwide by the Associated Press. It appeared the next day in dozens of newspapers, in many cases on the front page.

Almost immediately, newspaper readers began to debate the image. A message board devoted to the Detroit Free Press sparked a debate the next morning over whether the picture actually showed genitalia. The Hartford Courant was bombarded with complaints, many of which reader representative Karen Hunter posted online.

“You are showing his penis right on the front page,” one Courant reader complained to Hunter. “I think that’s disgusting. … I think you should have blocked it out or something.”

Over at the New York Post, editors anticipated that exact response. The Post ran the picture big and in color, but cloned out the flesh-colored shape protruding from the student’s lap. Across town, the archrival Daily News ran the picture unedited.

People edited the photo, while its sister magazine Time ran the picture unedited.

By April 18, sharp-eyed bloggers had flagged some of the news outlets that altered the photo. Both Poynter and the National Press Photographers Association — whose code of ethics prohibits digital alterations to news photographs in most cases — posted stories about the photo on their Web sites.

In response, Post executive editor Col Allen told Poynter, “We decided to make a very minor alteration to the photograph of Kevin Sterne being carried out of Norris Hall to protect the wounded student’s dignity but in no way change the news impact of the picture.”

People director of photography Chris Dougherty told PDN, “[O]ur sentiments closely resemble those stated in the article by the Post’s editor, Col Allan.”

The Sun newspaper in London also edited the picture in a similar away, according to the NPPA.

Did the picture actually show a penis? Roanoke Times photo editor Dan Beatty told the Courant, “We checked it out, checked it out, and checked it out again because we got that same question. What you see sticking up on his lap is a tourniquet. Unfortunately, the picture is fuzzy enough that it raised the question…. We appreciate that people want to know and care that we showed respect and decency for the young man. They should also know that he is doing fine and has the picture hanging up on his wall.”

This case of manipulation differs from other recent examples in that it was done by editors for reasons of taste, rather than by photographers for reasons of aesthetics. Alterations to an image in The New York Times and to multiple images in The Toledo Blade were disclosed by the newspapers earlier this month.

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