We had a problem online with a picture of Haley Reinhart this week. I’ll get to it in a moment, but first a relevant trip back to a small-town newsroom in 1978.
It was a different time, but more in ambiance than objective. Mountains of newsprint and notepaper tumbled over the edges of ancient desks. Typewriters clattered and clacked noisily. Cigarettes dangled from the lips of nearly every writer, editor and secretary in a small, wood-paneled newsroom so thick with the fog of their smoke you could barely make out the facial features of your neighbor.
Into such a scene one summer morning, strode a dark-haired woman. Her forehead was ridged in an angry scowl. She clutched the previous afternoon’s newspaper in a tight roll and shook it like a scepter in the face of an editor.
“I want to know who faked this photograph,” she demanded.
The stunned editor furrowed his own brow, stubbed out his cigarette and asked to know more. The woman said she had watched the Little League baseball game that was the subject of a large black-and-white photograph on the cover of the Sports page. The picture clearly showed a boy sliding into second base with a white baseball hanging in midair inches from the second-baseman’s waiting glove. The woman’s son was the second baseman. The play, she explained, had created a furor among the fans because everyone knew the runner was out in spite of the umpire’s call to the contrary. Someone, she insisted, had doctored the photograph to support the umpire. She wanted to know who and why.
The editor politely responded that we had neither the inclination, the time nor the technology to do such a thing. Photographers used bulky cameras loaded with celluloid film that had to be drenched in chemicals to produce an image, which then had to be converted into a system of dots in order to be pressed onto newsprint. The woman scoffed. It was 1978, for crying out loud. Technology could easily be manipulated to show anything we wanted.
A photographer was summoned. He showed her his camera. He took her downstairs to the darkroom, draped the negative containing her son’s play across a light table and let her look at it through a small magnifying eyepiece. Surely she could see, he pleaded, that we could not alter the picture, even if we wanted to, which we never would.
She wavered, but did not break. She had been at the game. She had seen the play. All of her friends around her had seen it, and they agreed. That boy was out. She wasn’t sure how we had done it, but somehow we had manufactured the image that appeared in print. Our photographer could only shrug. The editor as well, though he insisted again that even if such a thing were possible, we had standards against it. She grunted and finally turned to wade back through the noisy, cloudy newsroom and out into the street.
Which, believe it or not, brings us to 2017 and American Idol contestant Haley Reinhart. Reinhart, of Wheeling, was involved last weekend in a confrontation with a bouncer at a Palatine bar. It ended with her arrest and that familiar journalistic staple, a police mug shot. When Reinhart fans saw the image at our website, they were confused. Her lips, nose and eyes seemed distorted compared to the same image they were seeing elsewhere. What, they wondered in online comments, were we doing?
At first, our editors scoffed. We had used the same Palatine police photograph everyone else had used. We would have neither the time nor the desire to manipulate the image. Today, of course, is not 1978. With 2017 tools, any third-grader could make a picture of Haley Reinhart the spitting image of Hillary Clinton. Because of that, we have clear, strict rules against manipulating photographic images. It is virtually a firing offense, and in the extremely rare instances when matters of law or privacy compel us to obscure a house address or license plate or make some other modification to an image, we insist on letting readers know in the caption what we’ve done and why.
But looking more closely at the Reinhart picture, our photographers and online editors couldn’t deny it. Something was different about the picture in our system compared to the one we had been given. They reprocessed the picture and replaced the modified one. They sent notes to the individuals who had pointed out the discrepancies, explaining that we’d discovered a problem and rectified it. Then they pored over the image trying to determine how the situation had occurred.
Ultimately, they discovered that a program being used to convert the picture for use in our system was modifying it — automatically, inexplicably and without any sort of notice. Obviously, we’ve determined that from now on, we’ll use other technological options for converting pictures. We’re sorry for the confusion this caused, and emphasize that we took steps quickly to get the picture right. Fortunately, most of the people who had noticed were understanding and appreciative when we explained what we’d done.
But I still have a message for the angry woman who strode into that tar-crusted newsroom four decades ago. It was a different world then, yes, but our ethics are still the same. That boy was safe.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.