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Institutional Breakdown at Reuters

A reader who says he spent more than a decade working as a news photographer for major media outlets in Washington D.C. sends along the following comments on the Reuters/Hajj fiasco:

Firstly, the Reuters PR person's comment that Adnan Hajj was trying to "remove dust marks" is disingenuous on the face of it. Virtually every wire service photographer today shoots digitally -- there are no "dust marks" to remove. It's quite simply impossible. Secondly, his alteration of both photos (the smoke and the aircraft flares) from what I have seen was sloppy and amateurish -- it's clear he just coarsly cloned bits of the image over and over again.

This causes me to wonder two things: Firstly, while cleaning or repairing an image fault may be permitted (although, for example, a photographer in North Carolina was just fired by his newspaper for simply making the backround of a photo richer in color -- a change he claimed was necessary because the camera failed to capture the true quality of the color he saw), this can NEVER be done by cloning, especially by cloning significant chunks of picture, as Hajj did.

Secondly, where were the editors? I have read that Hajj was apparently filing directly into the Reuters World desk, bypassing the Beirut bureau, but even this is no excuse. If the pictures I have seen were indeed the photos distributed, they are clumsy and obvious manipulations, and any desk editor worth his salt should have seen them for what they were INSTANTLY.

Next, filing a deliberately misleading caption (for example, identifying flares as missiles or bombs) should be a firing action. The only excuse Hajj could have was that he couldn't tell the difference, which would lead one to wonder why he is trusted to cover this fighting in the first place.

BTW, the "time stamp" thing on the Qana pictures is a spurious argument. If it means what I think (the time marker for when the picture was transmitted to clients from the wire service), the time on the picture is meaningless. Editors would transmit the best picture first, then continue sending pictures from the event in order of importance and quality, not in the order they were shot. They might even transmit a picture hours or days later at the request of a client.

I know that there is a big difference between covering the White House, as I did, and Beirut, where the men with guns are not as polite as the Secret Service. However, there are two inviolable rules here:

1. You've got to be able to trust your stringers. They are reporters too, trusted to transmit the FACTS, not what they think or what they believe, but what simply, actually happened.
2. Your editors -- at every level, from the guy simply running the desk to the big guy incharge of all photos -- are there to watch for this stuff.