Altered images

The decision by some papers to doctor or delete a clearly visible body part in pictures of last week's bombings in Madrid raises serious ethical questions
Click to follow

Until Spain's interior minister gave his dramatic news conference in the early hours of Sunday morning, confirming the existence of a video claiming al-Qai'da responsibility, the Sunday papers had chosen a sombre approach to coverage of the Madrid bombings. A picture of little Marco Gonzalez using his sleeve to brush tears from his eyes as he wept over the coffin of his father Felix appeared on many front pages. It was simple and spoke directly to an atmosphere The Independent on Sunday described as "the silence of the tomb". The Sunday People encapsulated the mood in the headline "100 Funerals... One Dark Day". Forty-eight hours earlier, picture selection had not been as straightforward.

For many editors one shot, taken by Pablo Torres Guerrero of the Spanish daily El Pais and distributed by Reuters, best captured the horror of Thursday's bombings. It showed shocked and injured victims tended by rescue workers on the railway tracks just outside Atocha station. In the background stood the wreckage of a commuter train, its carriages ripped apart by the detonations.

El Pais, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph all carried the picture on their front pages. The Times, Sun, Daily Mirror and Independent used it on inside pages. But some of these titles did not use the image in its original form. In the original version, which appeared in El Pais, The Independent and Daily Mirror, human remains are clearly visible in the bottom left of the image between the railway track and a square white frame.

The object looks like a human limb. It is saturated in blood. In the version carried on the front page of The Daily Telegraph, the object has been digitally excised. The Sun, Times and Daily Mail all took the same decision, replacing the limb with stones matching those between the rails. The Guardian's version turned the colour of the remains from blood red to grey.

Paul Johnson, deputy editor (News) of The Guardian, says "The photograph encapsulated the scale of this very human tragedy. It's an extraordinary photograph that was just in the margins of what we could use on the front page, but in that left-hand corner was an identifiable body part. To my mind that put us over the threshold. We could have cropped it out, but someone came up with the suggestion that we bleed out the colour. It is not perfect, by any means, but I felt it was the best solution all round because it didn't eradicate anything from the picture."

Johnson's decision was debated at length before The Guardian decided to publish the altered picture. One insider says: "We have never done that before. There were discussions about it before we did it and there have been many discussions since. Some people will say we have crossed a line. Is taking down the colour of one aspect of the picture as bad as pretending the object is not there at all?"

The Telegraph's picture editor, Bob Bodman, says: "It's a question of taste. You can clean up an image if you feel it does not change the context - in this case, had that object been at the side we would have cropped it. It didn't really add anything to the picture."

David Viggers, the editor in charge of Reuters' news photography, was surprised by both decisions. "I intensely dislike seeing any of our pictures manipulated in any way. It is not something we condone or encourage. I was surprised that they bothered to take it out. It was obviously human, but we could not tell exactly what it was. Since it is not the focal point of the picture we did not think it required an advisory. I would not have removed it myself, but I can understand why some people did. It did not alter the context of the image. There was no fiendish intent to mislead."

Viggers considers The Guardian's decision less questionable than that taken by newspapers that excised the limb completely. Professor Justin Lewis, of the School of Journalism at Cardiff University, disagrees. "If you consider this fairly, then both The Guardian and the Telegraph are manipulating an image simply in order to get the best picture for their front pages. Once you cross that line, what isn't permissible? There is quite a strong sense from newspaper insiders that this happens all the time and that it is OK. All the research I have seen and done suggests that readers do not agree. They want images to be true. They don't like the sense that they have been hoodwinked."

Professor Greg Philo, of the Media Unit at Glasgow University, says "They should not take a picture as horrifying as that and render it more acceptable by changing the content. That is sanitising. It is wrong and it should not happen."

The disreputable tradition of improving reality goes back to the earliest days of news photography. The war photographer James Robertson did it in the Crimea in 1855, giving one spectacular shot the title "Valley of Death" when in fact it had been staged months after the charge of the Light Brigade and in an entirely different location. But in recent years tricks invented by stills photographers have been more of a problem in television than newspapers. The history of television documentary is littered with visual trickeries that range from outright faking to sleight of hand.

On this occasion, sincere concerns about taste and decency do offer a plausible defence to those who chose to alter Pablo Guerrero Torres's photograph, though it is important to note that the censorship that resulted would not have been tolerated in Spain or France. The problem is that this is not an isolated incident.

Digital technology has made it easier than ever before for newspapers to doctor photographs, often imperceptibly. Such changes seldom come to light unless many newspapers have used the same original image, thus allowing comparison between published versions. In a recent ruling, the Press Complaints Commission stupilated that editors "must make clear to readers when they have altered photographs in any material way". Stephen Abell of the PCC says: "We have made decisions about manipulation in the past. On this occasion it would be up to any reader to complain. If they did, we would consider the issue."