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Reuters CEO on Adnan Hajj Scandal

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As I’ve written before, I give Reuters credit for reacting quickly when the Adnan Hajj scandal broke. Reuters CEO Tom Glocer has posted a speech he gave recently about the incident, and it isn’t bad for the most part, although I obviously don’t agree with him that there’s no systemic bias at Reuters: Trust in the Age of Citizen Journalism. (Hat tip: LGF readers.)

We conducted a review which concluded this was a case of an individual photographer, ignoring Reuters rules, and embellishing two photographs for aesthetic, not political, reasons. [It just happened by pure coincidence that Adnan Hajj’s aesthetic sense led him to create images that exaggerated the damage of Israel’s attacks. Right. —ed.]

In addition to the disciplinary action I described earlier, we wanted to get the message out to our entire staff. So we updated and reissued our guidelines for all editorial staff, including a new way of captioning photographs. If for example a photo is taken while on a tour organized by Hezbollah we will now make this 100% clear in the caption. [That’s an improvement - and also an admission that they’ve published photos from Hizballah propaganda sessions without identifying them as such. —ed.] We want to let our users know the full context and make up their own minds.

This helps address the issue of photo ops staged by combatants, but we still needed to address the issue of digital manipulation, so we reiterated our strict rules banning the use of Photo-Shop to do anything you could not legitimately do in the darkroom, and we ensured that every photographer, staffer or freelancer, signed up to these rules. If you didn’t sign, you didn’t work.

But getting photographers to sign up to an enhanced code went some of the way but not all of the way. As a geek myself, I searched for a technical solution that would prevent digital manipulation.

I am pleased to announce today that we are working with Adobe and Canon to create a solution that enables photo editors to view an audit trail of changes to a digital image, which is permanently embedded in the photograph, ensuring the accuracy of the image.

We are still working through the details and hope this will be a new standard for Reuters and I believe should be the new industry standard.

Notice how Glocer says they discovered only two photographs that were altered. Yet they immediately removed Adnan Hajj’s entire category and never talked about it again. Were there other altered photographs in there? We’ll apparently never know; the evidence has been “disappeared,” and Reuters seems to have no intention of discussing it.

The idea of an audit trail is a good one, but color me very skeptical that any technical solution will ever be able to prevent photo fraud entirely. If this is supposed to work with EXIF metadata, there are already many programs that let you play around with EXIF tags to your heart’s content. And if the intent is to create some new standard of embedded metadata that’s harder to alter, good luck getting that approved by all the industry players before, oh, 2010 or so.

If it’s supposed to be some kind of advanced AI routine that analyzes picture data to detect fauxtography, I can only laugh.

Then the CEO of Reuters gets bloggy with it and gives me a hat tip.

So what does the Hajj incident tell us? There are three key lessons:

The first is accountability. The upside of the flourishing blogosphere is that beyond our own strict editorial standards, there is a new check and balance. I take my hat off to Charles Johnson, the editor of Little Green Footballs. Without his website, the Hajj photo may well have gone unnoticed.

The blogosphere provides accountability. They’re not always going to be right. Indeed, many of the accusations levelled at traditional media are partisan in nature – but some are not. We have to listen to the bloggers – we shouldn’t ignore them.

The second lesson is about the trust of our audience. We learned at Reuters that the action of one man – a man who wasn’t even a full-time staff member – could seriously hurt the trust in our news, built assiduously over 155 years. His stupid decision to clone smoke cost us.

We learned that your reputation is only as good as the last photograph you transmit, or the last story you file.

The final lesson we learned was this – more than ever the world needs a media company free from bias, independent, telling it as it really is, without the filter of national or political interest.

If you searched across the Web during the Lebanon conflict you saw many entrenched and extreme views – on either side. There were thousands of voices opining on the war from their own particular standpoint. This cacophony of voices is exciting and it does for the first time give a true flavor of all views. It is also provides a marketplace for ideas.

But I strongly believe that in the mixing of different voices we will always need a place for the news organization whose watchword is trust. Trust will be the differentiator in the new media dynamic. Your independence and impartiality will mark you out.

Telling the story truthfully is more important than ever. Reporting it without spin and without editorializing is critical if history is to accurately record events.

Thanks to Mr. Glocer for the nice words. Now what about this? Reuters: David Duke a ‘US Academic’.

UPDATE at 12/14/06 5:32:41 pm:

A freelance photographer emailed to say that Glocer may be referring to new cameras coming on the market from Nikon and Canon, with options for verifiable images. We shall see.

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