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The ethics of photo manipulation


In this four-day lesson, students will read an article by photojournalist Snorri Gunnarsson about the ethics of manipulating photos. Students will discuss the ethical issues that surround using tools like Adobe Photoshop to edit a photo, including looking at examples and discussing how much editing is too much. Then, students will work in pairs to research a famous manipulated photo and present their findings to the class.

For a more in-depth look about other ways that journalists have made ethically wrong decisions historically, check out the Law & Ethics lesson titled “When journalists err ethically.”


  • Students will understand key instances where photographs were manipulated in questionable ways.
  • Students will be able to conduct mini research projects on topics about photojournalism, evaluate sources for their accuracy, and present what they’ve learned concisely to others.

Common Core State Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.5 Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.8 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a  standard format for citation.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.


180 minutes (Four 45-minute lessons)


Class set: Photojournalism on steroids

Sample photos to use/manipulate

Class set: Rubric and photo manipulation project sheet

Presentation of manipulated photos

Lesson step-by-step

[This lesson can be shortened to one class period for the two-week unit or the nine-week unit. The first day’s instruction can stand on its own without the four-day project that follows. For a four-week photojournalism unit, combine Day 1 of the instruction for this lesson with Day 1 of the “Legal and ethical considerations in photojournalism” lesson.]

1. Building background — 10 minutes

Ask students to discuss with a partner: what types of photo corrections/alterations do they think are “acceptable” when it comes to editing a photo?  These types of considerations are especially important when it comes to yearbooks, which often plan, choose, and adjust photos based on theme development and artistic presentation.  What responsibility do journalists have toward readers when making these decisions?

Consider asking students to discuss the following edits:

a) editing out something distracting in a photo’s background OR foreground

b) flipping a photo

c) adjusting the brightness/contrast

d) adjusting the color

e) cropping the photo

f) filters, special effects, and color themes for yearbook

2. Class share — 5 minutes

Have students share their thoughts with the class.

3. Examples — 10 minutes

Show students examples of photos that are original and have been adjusted (these are included in the presentation titled Manipulated Photos).  Ask them if they see any ethical problems with the photos.  (One photo has been flipped, one photo has something cropped out, one photo has been highly processed in terms of color, one photo has something that’s been added to it.)

The final slides of the Presentation share excerpts from national organizations and newspapers about photo editing policies, including this tenet from the National Press Photographer’s Association’s Code of Ethics: “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.”

**Consumers Union, the nonprofit research side of Consumer Reports, did a 2013 study and found policies on photo manipulation from almost 40 local, regional and national news organizations.  You can access their report by clicking here, but any use of this report in your classroom should abide by copyright law.

4. Individual reading — 10 minutes

Pass out a copy of Snorri Gunnarsson’s “Photojournalism on Steroids” article to each student and give students time to read.  (As students are reading, I like to show a copy of the image on the projector – do a search for “toledo blade bluffton baseball photo manipulation” to find the doctored image compared with others.)

5. Discussion — 10 minutes

Discuss students’ reactions to the article.  (Most of my students are often shocked and sometimes even outraged that he was fired for such a “small” alteration.)

6. Group work — days 2 & 3

Hand out any information about the project, assign topics, and explain.

7. Presentations – day 4

Students will present their findings to the class for assessment.

Photos that can be researched for group projects:

  1. Toledo blade- Alan Dietrich photos (note that this is the primary subject of the article students will read in class, though!)
  2. National Geographic’s pyramids photos
  3. Time magazine cover of OJ Simpson
  4. Newsweek cover of Bobbi McCaughey, 1997
  5. Newsweek’s Martha Stewart cover, 2005
  6. Boston marathon photo published in Daily News (a bit graphic – look at it first to see if it’s appropriate for your school)
  7. Citizen newspaper (Kabul) – car bombing, 2012 (also a little graphic)
  8. Magazine covers – Faith Hill & Redbook, 2007
  9. Wisconsin advertising brochure, 2000
  10. LA Times photo by Brian Walski, 2003
  11. Tibetan railroad photo, 2006
  12. Condoleezza Rice photo, 2005
  13. Papal delegation, 2007
  14. Klavs Bo Christensen’s photo of Haiti, April 2009
  15. Stepan Rudik’s street fighting photos, 2010
  16. Situation room photo, 2011, published in Di Tzeitugn and Di Voch newspapers


For students who finish working on their project early or have additional time/interest in the topic, feel free to point them to this article by the NY Times Lens Blog about a photo verification technology called “Izitru” (pronounced “is it true”) that allows users to confirm the authenticity of photos they see on the Internet.