How to save the face of a venerable news organisation

Reuters had to act quickly when bloggers noticed that two photographs of Israeli military action had been doctored. Raymond Snoddy gets the full story from its new editor-in-chief
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The Independent Online

t was vigilant bloggers who first raised questions about the validity of two Reuters photographs of Israeli military action in Lebanon published last summer. In one, wisps of smoke rising over Beirut seemed identical, as if extra smoke had been added to enhance the image. In the other the accusation was that the number of flares being dropped by an Israeli F-16 fighter had been increased by digital means to make the picture look more dramatic.

It was appropriate then that David Schlesinger, the editor-in-chief of Reuters who took over last month, should use his editor's blog to set out the results of the investigation into the embarrassing charge that the venerable international news agency had issued falsified pictures.

Schlesinger - the first US editor-in-chief of the agency - concluded that smoke and flares had been added to the images. Despite denials, Reuters' relationship with Adnan Hajj, a Lebanese freelance photographer, was ended and all his images removed from the agency's sales database. Reuters' Middle East chief photographer was also dismissed.

"It was obviously very serious from the beginning," Schlesinger says. "What happened with the photographs has never been allowed at Reuters and has always been explicitly a sacking offence."

He denies vehemently the allegation from some bloggers that Reuters tried to deny that the incident had happened, or to delay the response. "It did unfortunately get past our desk. It should have been caught and I wish it had been. But Reuters reacted straight away. We dealt with it."

As a result, the international news agency has decided to spell out its rules much more forcefully, and in particular, the extent to which Reuters staff can use digital manipulation systems such as Photoshop. All have been reminded that "materially altering" a picture in Photoshop or any other image editing software will lead to dismissal. No additions to, or deletions from, original images are permitted, nor should there be any dramatic changes made to the lighting conditions.

But Schlesinger has decided to go one stage further, also partly in response to bloggers and critics, who say there is another form of manipulation - one where events have essentially been stage-managed for photographers. "In the new world we spell out in the captions the circumstances in which photographs were taken," he says.

In the old days, Schlesinger believes, the media would hide comfortably behind their working methods but now people expect a much greater degree of transparency. "If our access is limited we should say that. It gives the context that people need to know to understand the photograph or the news report."

Schlesinger, who is 45, looks and sounds like the academic he was and could have remained. He got his break into journalism by crunching his master's thesis at Harvard and selling it to the Far East Economic Review. A China expert whose wife is from Hong Kong, he has been at Reuters for 20 years, as both correspondent and as an editor. He covered Tiananmen Square in 1989, but by 1995 had become the agency's financial editor for the Americas, based in New York. He missed reporting, but "it became very hard to go back".

He is no stranger to controversies that stretch beyond questionable pictures. In 2005 the Reuters daily briefing to staff carried an extraordinary memo in which Schlesinger, then global managing editor, appeared to denounce Reuters' editorial quality. The agency's news, he said, was seen as having insufficient insight, and both news and data were not differentiated enough from competitors. The memo had been intended for an audience of about 10 senior Reuters executives. "What I was saying was let's not be complacent. We can do a lot better. We must do a lot better. I was trying to make a particular point and was more polemical than I would have been if I had been writing for publication or a wider audience."

There is also the Bangalore issue - what many see as the outsourcing of 1,600 jobs to the Indian city, including those of about 100 journalists, required to process corporate announcements. It was Schlesinger's job to make sure the initiative worked.

It is not outsourcing, Schlesinger argues, because Bangalore is a staff bureau "like any other" and Reuters has been in India for more than a century. "Because of the cost structure we are able to cover more companies than we would otherwise be able to do and the net number of journalists in the US has actually gone up since we moved to somewhere like Bangalore. We have used it to expand coverage."

One of Schlesinger's most difficult tasks is dealing with the US military over the issue of the four Reuters television cameramen who have died in Iraq - all of them the result of US fire.

He is not seeking disciplinary action, merely that the US military acknowledges what has happened and learns lessons. It would help, he believes, if US soldiers received more training on such things as the difference between a television camera and a rocket launcher. "We have constructive interactions [with the US military] but need to get to the point where there is real serious working group engagement on what can be done."

The work on staff safety has to go on because Reuters makes its living " by explaining the hot spots of the world" and that inevitably means there will be danger for its journalists. "We must therefore take every precaution possible and make sure we report as safely as possible."