Is seeing believing?

News visuals have always possessed a unique ability to capture, inform, and engage an audience. And, with the proliferation of digital photography in the past years, there are now more newsworthy photos and videos being created than ever before. However, along with this digital revolution has been a rise in manipulations of visuals intended for the media.

In early January, Nancy Pelosi’s office released an official photograph of the “House Democratic Women of the 113th Congress” posed on the capital steps. Later, it was uncovered that Pelosi’s office had digitally inserted several congresswomen into the photo who had missed the shoot. Her office had not disclosed this alteration. Pelosi later went on to defend the practice, calling it an “accurate record,” leading some journalism associations to protest.

A week later, it was announced that a winner of the National Geographic Photo Contest had been disqualified for digitally removing items from the photo he submitted. After beating out a field of more than 20,000 entries from 150 countries, his manipulation was only noticed when he was asked to send in the original file to confirm the win.

While these recent examples can seem somewhat tame, there have been many more serious instances, including: a newspaper fabricating disaster photos from Syria, social media erupting with fake photos of Hurricane Sandy, and North Korea releasing altered photos of Kim Jong-il’s funeral.

A company that unofficially tracks major instances of visual tampering has noted at least 60 cases in the past two years alone and notes that in 2012 there was a trend towards more politically oriented orientated alterations and more video manipulations.

Focusing In

One of my aims while at Stanford is to research existing and emergent tools that identify digital manipulations to help media vet and verify images before publishing. I plan to evaluate which tools seem best adapted for media, while taking into account media’s inherent need for speed and workflow.

Some tools exist today, including FourMatch, a recently released Photoshop plug-in that aims to verify whether an image is an untouched original from a digital camera. Another tool is the mobile application InformaCam, which can capture and encrypt additional metadata into images and be able to verify it came from a specific registered mobile device. Tools such as these could potentially give media a technical layer of authentication not in widespread use today.

The Developing Future

Today, there are many pressures influencing the media industry, among them: a reduction of resources, a fragmentation of audience that’s increasing overall competition, and a rise in the use of citizen-journalism and crowdsourced information and third-party (government or handout) visual content. These industry shifts make the risk of unintentionally publishing manipulated images potentially more pronounced for media outlets. With the ever-increasing speed and abundance of information coupled with the news audience’s demand for immediacy, I feel that technical solutions should be a priority to ensure media ethics, accuracy, truth.