Are App-Filtered News Images Ethical?

By Kristen Taylor Sorensen

For years, photojournalists, editors, and news consumers have been weighing in on where to draw the line on filtered images in the news, and the debate is far from over.


In 2011, Damon Winter, longtime photojournalist for The New York Times, took third place in the Newspaper Photo of the Year contest for his work A Grunt’s Life. Winter used the app Hipstamatic to capture photos of G.I. life on the front lines. His win was the big spark that brought the debate about app-filtered images in to national headlines. The controversy was not over his use of the app, but his use of the app’s image-altering filters and the lack of Winter’s transparency about it.

David Sorcher, a professional photojournalist of 30 years whose work has been featured in The New York Times, says that Winter’s work is a “beautiful piece of work that belongs in an art gallery, not in the news.” He says the work is more abstract and emotional, rather than informative. For a photojournalism, Sorcher says Winter “crossed the line.”

It has been two years since Winter won his award, and the question has yet to be answered.

Does the use of a filter on a photograph more accurately report the news, or is it editorializing on the news?


Specialists in the field weigh in

“Instagram makes it easier to manipulate reality.” – Adam Schweigert

David Cohn, founding editor of the news aggregating app Circa, says that the answer is not a simple yes or no.

He says that when using an app to filter an image, transparency is key. If the filtered image is presented as unfiltered, it is simply unethical.

Even applying a warm filter to the image may make the image appear as if the photo was taken at a different time of day, Cohn says. He says this may change the meaning of the event and make the viewer or reader think differently about what happened.

Emily Schwartz, Assistant Editor at WaPo Labs in Washington, D.C., says that as long as the image is clearly labeled as filtered, it is fine to use. She says that all photos go through an editing process, and the use of an app to add a filter is no different.

“A journalist’s job is to tell a story and if they do it with a photo-editing app, it’s okay,” said Schwartz.

Sorcher has a different opinion.

Sorcher comes from what he says in an old school photojournalism background. He says he “cuts his teeth on the classics.” He doesn’t have a smart phone or an Instagram account. Sorcher says that if he wants to create a warmer colored image, he will use paper with a warm tone to create the effect.

Sorcher says that when a photojournalist adds filters to their image, they cross a line into editorializing the news. The filters add “emotional factors that may not have been at the scene,” he says.

Katharine Zaleski, managing editor at Now This News, completely agrees. Zaleski says that she doesn’t think a photo that has a filter is an accurate report. “It’s a dramatic interpretation,” she said. “You put the filter on there because the photo you took is not good enough.”


Does labeling make a difference?

“You don’t want to mislead people, so if you are modifying an image, it should be clearly labeled.” – Justin Elliott.

Justin Elliott, investigative reporter for ProPublica, says that filtered images should be labeled, especially if there is potential for misinterpretation. He says that photojournalists should want their readers to know what they are looking at.

Sorcher agrees that a filtered image used in a news piece needs to be labeled. If the image is not labeled, he worries that people will look at the image and think the photographer “captured the real incident.”

He says that non-photographers aren’t as well informed as the professionals and don’t have the training to understand what they are seeing.

Adam Schweigert, director of technology for the Investigative News Network, doesn’t exactly agree.

He says that if photojournalists use an Instagram-filtered photo in a news story, the filters and square shape of the photo may be familiar enough that readers will recognize it as an Instagram photo.

He says that, in the same way you wouldn’t identify the camera or lens used for a photo, you don’t necessarily need to identify all of the filters used to enhance a photo. He also says it “couldn’t hurt to give the reader a sense of the process and what they are seeing, though.”

Cohn weighs in by adding that if news organizations are using Instagram photos, they need to be transparent as to where they obtained the photo. He says that when a news organization labels a photo as being from Instagram, it is then okay to trust the readers to understand it is coming from an eye-witness of the event and that the image may be filtered.

“The photo is being used as a primary document of the event and the organization can trust the reader’s intelligence to understand what that means,” Cohn said.


A new argument for an old process

‘Filtering images is not new, it’s now just easier.” – Adam Schweigert

Schweigert says that the process of altering or enhancing an image is nothing new. “The technology that makes it so easy is what’s new.”

Cohn says that even a flash may have once been considered a way to alter an image. The flash is excepted because everyone understands what it is and how it works, he says.

“The use of new photo-altering tools isn’t as of now built in to our common understanding of photography, so its role remains unclear,” he said.

Sorcher, who also takes artistic photographs, explains how some alterations of a photograph can actually make the photo more accurate, when done correctly.

“Every photo we take is in some way a lie because cameras can’t see what the human eye can see,” Sorcher said. Every photograph needs to be adjusted to be accurate, he said.

Sorcher goes on to say that this is not the same as manipulating the image to change it from what it was. Photojournalists should remain as pure as they can be and Instagram blurs the edges of what is acceptable journalism, he says.

“We owe it to our audiences to present something as close to reality as possible,” said Sorcher.


“It’s not the camera that decides if something is good journalism.” David Sorcher

Though the answer is unclear as to whether it’s ethical or not to use app-filtered images in the news, most people can agree that photographs make stories come alive in a way that plain text can’t.

Elliott sums it by saying, “even though photojournalism has been buffeted by technology and economics, it is still an incredibly important tradition that needs to be kept alive.”