What is a fake image?

Images are the crux of the media and provide visual stimulation, evidence and controversy for the public. It is important to publish appropriate photographs that uphold ethical standards in the media. Unethical practices involving imagery include the physical manipulation of a photo to serve the photographers purpose. British photographer, Roger Fenton, produced a famous war photo entitled “Valley of the Shadow of Death”. It depicts a barren and dreary dirt road with cannonballs scattered all across the ground. However, upon investigation by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, a second image of the same landscape was discovered, yet, it was devoid of the many cannonballs across the path. This evidence made it clear that Fenton had staged the iconic image in 1855. Other unethical approaches to photography are leading the audience to misinterpret the image; this could be done by different angles and captions. Also, digitally altering photos or stealing and editing them relate to ethical issues regarding images.

(Valley of the Shadow of Death on left with cannonballs on road. Unaltered image on right without cannonballs on road)


Case Study: Stolen and Altered Images

An incident with the accomplished war photojournalist, Eduardo Martins, highlighted the ethical issue of fake and stolen images throughout journalism.

Martins’ war images were said to be of conflict in Gaza, Syria and Iraq, however this was not the case. Other photographers in different locations originally took the photos in question. Martins had stolen the images and his captions misidentified where the original photo was taken. He flipped them horizontally then cropped them to sell the photos as his own.

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 10.52.31 pm

(Martins’ mirrored and cropped images on left. Originals on right)

His false images were marketed to agencies including Getty Images, Zuma, and NurPhoto. Some were published in The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, The Telegraph, and BBC Brazil.

Daniel C. Britt, the true war photographer of the some of the images commented on the ethical repercussions of Martins’ deception. “Some of the people depicted in them (the photos) are no longer with us. Their lives mattered. The lives of my interpreters, fixers and everyone who helped us along the way mattered. The value of these photos is more than the pittance Eduardo got from the agencies or his number of ‘Likes’ on Facebook.” Said Britt.

When questioned about being a fake, Martins emailed war journalist and former friend, Fernando Costa Netta, with his intentions to flee.

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(Email from Martins to Costa Netta)

By portraying stolen images as his own, Eduardo Martins did not act ethically in his approach to journalism and has trivialised those in the war and working on it.


How do fake images affect Journalism?

Fake images through any medium should not be used in journalism and reporting. Photographs need to be true in nature and rightfully credited in order to comply with ethics gain the trust of the public. Daniel C. Britt identified the affect fake images have on journalism in a statement. “Im just disappointed that Eduardo Martins bastardised the photo captions and gave people yet another reason to distrust the news.”

As a journalist, if images of an unethical nature are used and exposed a loss of creditability will most likely occur to the journalist and their work. The theory of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” comes into play as the public questions which reports are to be believed.


How to spot a fake image

When using an image in the media it is important to verify the photo and its origins. One of the ways to do this is to perform a reverse image search on Google Images or TinEye.

Checking the metadata is another way to confirm the credibility of an image. Many sites, when an image is uploaded, tell you information including the make of the camera, the time and place the image was taken, as well as if the image has been opened in Photoshop and resaved at some point. Dr Hany Farid, a computer scientist and digital forensics expert at Dartmouth University in the US, identifies what checking this data can imply. “When you edit an image, it adds its own little bit of metadata,” Dr Farid said.

To further analyse an image, attention should be given to shadows and light. Ensuring all shadows match each other in the same direction can confirm whether there have been any alterations to the image.

Screen Shot 2018-05-11 at 10.01.54 am.png

(Red lines indicate a person who has been digitally edited into the image. The red lines show where the shadow should be in relation to the rest of the shadows)


Journalists when using images in the media must take ethical approaches. Taking care to capture true scenes as well as only publishing creditable photos are necessary for avoiding ethical issues and consequences such as a tarnished reputation as a journalist, as well as public outrage leading to legal implications, and distrust of the news.


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