Controversy Crops Up Over Economist Cover Photo

The Economist is in hot water after running an extremely edited photograph of President Obama on a Louisiana beach. The cover photo shows Obama alone on the beach. But the original photo, taken by Reuters photographer Larry Downing, shows that Obama was, in fact, not alone at all.

The altered image crops out Admiral Thad W. Allen of the Coast Guard, but also goes an extra step to completely omit the presence of Charlotte Randolph, a Louisiana parish president (perhaps with Photoshop CS5’s content-aware fill).

This is a huge problem because The Economist’s omissions entirely change the tone of the image in order to make Obama appear alone, hanging his head, when in fact he is likely looking down at the beach while in conversation with the two people next to him.  Additionally, according to journalism ethics, news photos should not be altered, especially to this extent.

Reuters has a policy against this sort of editing:

“Reuters has a strict policy against modifying, removing, adding to or altering any of its photographs without first obtaining the permission of Reuters and, where necessary, the third parties referred to.”

There’s no word on whether Reuters has weighed in on the issue yet.

Shortly after the New York Times’ Media Decoder blog sparked a discussion about the controversial editing decision, deputy editor of The Economist Emma Duncan responded in an e-mail:

I was editing the paper the week we ran the image of President Obama with the oil rig in the background. Yes, Charlotte Randolph was edited out of the image (Admiral Allen was removed by the crop). We removed her not to make a political point, but because the presence of an unknown woman would have been puzzling to readers.

…We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.

I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. “The damage beyond the spill” referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.

Currently, The Economist’s site also has the featured image, cropped tighter, running with the cover story.

A void remains where Randolph originally stood. And next to that, the Reuters’ credit.

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  • Alessandro Casagli

    uhm, not nice, Economist, not nice at all.

  • Ranger 9

    I don't know whether this is how they actually did it or not, but Photoshop CS5's new Content-Aware Fill feature makes this kind of elision so easy that it's going to be epidemic before you know it.

  • facebook-700913731

    Get over it. My god people are so freakin' uptight about photo editing. 90% of what we look at everyday has been edited. It's Obama, on a beach, thinking… get over it for christ's sake.

  • Joshua Fahler

    On one hand, the Economist cover IS a LOT better than the original…

    …but yeah, the whole journalism/ethics thing… maybe the question is whether or not a cover photograph is a journalistic piece or artistic piece?

  • Meh


    Who cares? This is such a non-story. Almost EVERY image you see in advertising or editorial has been edited in some way to enhance the message. This isn't a case of twisting or misrepresenting at all.

  • lloyd

    i like the edit. its a good photo.

    lets all bitch about photo editing to make him look thiner and younger!

  • Meh

    Also, Content-Aware Fill is balls. Any serious retoucher would be doing this kind of thing by hand, with the clone tool. This retouch job is still a 5 second task, either way.

    Nothing to see here… move along.

  • Ema

    This is so wrong! And if you are going to do it, call it for what it is: an Illustration or Manipulation. That's why we have the term in journalism! You still make your point and a good cover, without deceit

  • Seriesrover

    I must admit I don't see this one as being a big deal. Photo-editing has been going on for decades to all levels of degrees. Whether one is tweaking contrast, dynamic range or cropping for quality of picture, its no big deal. What *is* a big deal is when the editing is changing the story of the picture – for instance the recent crop edit of Israeli soldiers boarding a ship where knives were cropped out; thats changing the story.

    In this case its just someones head being filled in with seawater. No biggy really.

  • Coal Miki-Restall

    Because it goes directly against journalistic ethics. Sure, it's just Obama on a beach this time, but what other pictures have they edited this way? Are we even sure that Obama was there and not just Photoshopped in from a stock photo? It's a very dangerous line they've crossed here.

  • Neroon

    I see this as nothing more than a tempest in a teapot. Editing to alter or modify the story is wrong, but this type of editing is harmless and simply made for a better picture. Lets worry about real photo edits meant to deceive or delude public perception. That is a real problem.

  • Adam

    i agree… those ethics are in place for a reason, it's one thing when mens fitness makes andy roddick look like an olympic superathlete, but this is crossing the line. Some may not see it as misrepresenting, but a lot of people could easily take this photo wrong way

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  • Kathy Walton

    Get a clue. Journalism is different from “art”. It's manipulated, therefore it crosses *the* line. Call me a dinosaur, shrug if you want, but it *is* a big deal, and anyone who has any stake at all in journalistic ethics is appalled by what The Economist did. You take the Brave New World if you want. I'll go down screaming. And I'll post this with my real name, thank you very much.

  • Kathy Walton

    You seriously don't see this as a deception?

  • QuBe

    I see no problem with this particular incident of photo editing.
    In this case, the image was employed to illustrate the mood of the story, and not as a literal record of a specific event.
    As far as I can tell, there was no requirement of the two other individuals to be in the photo, since the image was purely for dramatic effect.
    Since the shot could have been acquired as it was published if the photographer waited, framed it differently (or perhaps even requested the two others step out of frame for just a moment), it further diminishes the ethical question.

  • Glyn

    Ok so I understand the rules when it comes to news photographs but Obama is hanging is head anyway so does it really change the mood/feel of the image?…No, I don't think so.

    This really isn't the most controversial bit of editing out there; next thing we know they'll be controversy over adding a touch of contrast.

  • Semi-pro

    This is the second time in three weeks (referring to the “editing done to Lance's shirt on Outdoor magazine). The media is definitely going too far and taking too many liberties when it come to “photoshopping”. Refining a photograph, or getting it ready for production is completely diiferent than changing the story. What happened to the good old days when photographer actually had to have some talent and work for a living. I am a semi pro and I thrive on being in the right place at the right time; not relying on photoshop to “paint” what I want to present.

    Next they will be adding in people/ things to “fake” events.

    These publications should be punished either through litigation or fines and higher bars should be placed on what constiitues a photograph.

    Let's not blame the technology. It just its just provides “power” to artist and the like to create and used responsibly can be great tool. Like Abe Lincoln said – “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

  • Semi-pro

    It definitely does Glyn. Completely. Re creating is a far leap from refining/ editing.

  • Mjy2

    “Credit to Reuters”?
    So Reuters agreed to this manipulation of their original?
    How do they justify – legally and morally – taking a copyright credit on a photograph that has been significantly altered?

  • Mario_tr

    Ia ask the same question than Mjy2, What is the answer of Reuters ?

  • Troy

    When a photo, for news purposes, is edited this heavily, it needs to be labeled as a PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION, simply because it IS. It's no longer a photo, in the strict journalistic sense. It HAS been changed and p-j images are supposed to represent accuracy. Yes, like everyone else here, I understand that images are all retouched in some form or fashion, but not to this extent and not on a news magazine's cover. Wrong, fail, bad choice.

  • mesorensen

    Tempest in a teacup. Obama stood on a beach with people vs. Obama stood on a beach alone. Wow. That's like Watergate vs. The White House Easter Egg Hunt. Give it a rest pepole.

    The Economist routinely runs covers that are illustrations or montages. The headline for this issue was “Obama vs. BP”. Does the manipulation really afflict the reporting? Does it carry a significantly different meaning because they PS'd out a generally unknown person next to POTUS? Please explain how the manipulation of the photo translates to manipulation of the public.

  • mesorensen

    What exactly is the deception? Obama stood on a beach alone vs. Obama stood on a beach with some other people? The photo was meant to illustrate a story about Obama vs. BP. There's Obama, there's a oil rig symbolizing BP. How exactly is that a deception? How did the other people in the original photo change the story or reporting?

  • Joshua Schairbaum

    Who still thinks that journalists have ethics? That train left the station a long time ago.

  • Debbi

    This is why the most reputable news reporting requires the image be taken in RAW so it can be proven that no alterations were done. Not a bad policy to prevent this kind of hullaballo.

  • Paul Paradise

    Oh Give me a Break! This is the stupidest thing i read today! Of course it is wrong to edit a picture to mislead. But the real joke here is that the misleading, liberal media is the one with the panties in an uproar! How crazy it is when media gets all upset at a magazine for editing a picture when they “edit” the news to make it say just what they want it to say. What a bunch of hypocrites! “Get the beam out of your own eye before worrying about the splinter in another's eye! – Jesus Christ; intentionally edited for affect!

  • QuBe


    There was no deception here. How were you people deceived?
    It wasn't a journalistic photograph. It was just an image edited and used for dramatic effect, not for depiction nor conveyance of a specific scene or event.

    How people can achieve levels of hysteria to actually call for punishments, legal actions, and broadcast such hate over something so unfathomably insignificant, makes me want to vomit Niagarationally.

    Adulthood people…at least give it a try.
    If not, by all means have your prescriptions for lorazepam refilled.

  • QuBe

    Next they will be adding in people/ things to “fake” events.”


    Um, hate to burst your bubble, but the ship sailed on that reality since photography has existed.

    It would be nice if we could absolutely trust such media to convey perfect, truthful accounts in editorial journalism…

    But, even if they were 100% so motivated, the other realities of human error, journalistic interpretation and artistic opinion demands an individual employ their own faculties and abilities to discern and decide upon the facts from the sources they consume.

    Calling for pugnative and increased legal actions is simplistically reactionary and cannot solve the problem of human error. You can't legislate a perfect world.
    In this life, it is for everyone to employ some common sense and self responsibility.

  • David Hoyt

    So the Economist in effect says, “We wanted to make an editorial point, and had to use Photoshop rather than a photographer to get an image that would look right.”

    The Economist does op/ed like the Sun does three-headed alien love children. You'd think they'd have retained the self respect to harvest images from a bunch of Photojournalists. If you want be a journalist, start taking 3D mosaic motion pictures, cut into multiple layers for better manipulation. At the end of the day, we'll only need three photojournalists and a bunch of under-editors with Photoshop-3D.

  • Joe

    Way to go Paul! Turn it into a “liberal media” thing for no reason AND throw in Jesus while you're at it! Next time, mention guns and NASCAR too. Then, capitalize stuff for no reason.

  • Joe

    I'm more miffed that he looks orange as an oompa loompa.

  • thniels

    “Get over it…”? This is not “just” a photo. The photograph precedes a story and sets a mood and thus modifies its context. Keep in mind, that many consider photographs the truth. When they turn out to be lies, then what is the truth value of the text? After all, the text is substantially harder to verify for layman. It is not the lie [or its significance] itself – it is the fact that a lie is being told in the first place.

  • jonliebold

    For you maybe, but for some of us the train is permanently parked in the station.

  • Supportphotojournalism

    Not cropped, just MANIPULATED the Image, delete information, is a fake photo like many others magazines and photographers are doing in the last tomes. Not ethic!.

  • Dkchay

    I was a bit reluctant to come to this conclusion. But unfortunately it is quite clear that the people who do not believe there's something wrong with this are purely ignorant. Here's a definition of “deceive:” to give a mistaken impression! Hello!! That's precisely what we get from the cover of the Economist: a mistaken impression that the President was alone. HE WASN'T.
    Simple and plain. Anyone who doesn't get that is, I'm afraid, just not very bright.

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  • ahkenaten

    This is a ridiculous attack on the Economist. They make a photoshop cover to be poignant, not to present an inaccurate story. Whereas Reuters, BBC, the Guardian, Ap – ALL of them have been caught multiple times using photoshoped pictures of explosions, dead civilians, etc and they present it as truth.

    The Economist could only be as guilty if they presented that photo with the story that “Obama walks alone on the beech”.

  • Alan

    This is the letter I sent to The Economist.

    Re: Barack Obama Oil Spill Cover

    I have read your explanation for the modification of the original photograph of multiple people to serve your
    purposes for the cover. Anyone with a commitment to truth would have rejected the justification for, and act of,
    altering the image, on 3 grounds:

    1) You altered an image without disclosing it – common practice at ethical publications
    2) You altered an image to make an editorial statement – unethical
    3) You altered an image that absolutely distorts the perception of the president and the moment – also unethical

    You have lost my previous trust and respect, and my future as a newsstand customer. What a disappointment.

  • QuBe

    Dkchay, educate yourself on the difference between 'ignorance' and the intelligence to not contrive a deception.

    If you possess the brighness you claim others lack, you would be able to imagine your reaction to the cover had you never seen the original photograph, and you would instantly see the difference between artistic license and treachery.

    Designating this 'a deception' doesn't make you brilliant…it makes you a drama queen.

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  • Wendyraeandersen

    It's a slippery slope. We need to hold our media to the highest of standards. After all, that is how all of us Amdericans get our news and develop opinions. If we lived in say a communist country, I suppose it would be just fine to live with propoganda, but here is the US, we must strive for more, even if you think it's ridicuous!

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