New York Times

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has followed up on her May 13 post about photo standards in T Magazine following editor Deborah Needleman's Photoshopping comments.

In the May 13 post, Needleman said she thought a cover model was too thin and "considered adding some fat to her with Photoshop," drawing some criticism from readers and other journalists, Sullivan wrote. The verdict: News photos can't be altered, but fashion photos are held to a different standard -- and editors at the Times "are confident that readers know the difference."

“That is inviolate, and the standards are very clear,” Michele McNally, assistant managing editor for photography, told me. The Times does not stage news photographs, or alter them digitally.

But Times editors see the fashion photography in T as an exception. “Fashion is fantasy,” Ms. McNally said. “Readers understand this. It’s totally manipulated, with everything done for aesthetics.”

Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, agreed. “This is a different genre of photography,” he said. “It has different goals, different tools and techniques, and there is a different expectation on the part of the reader.”

Sullivan added that Styles editor Stuart Emmrich said his features section has a definite policy on any sort of manipulation: “We strictly forbid any altering or manipulation of photos that have been shot for Styles, including fashion shoots.” Times Magazine photo director Kathy Ryan concurred, Sullivan said.

The differences in standards between T Magazine and the rest of the paper needs to be more clear, she wrote; Giving the paper's audience the benefit of the doubt is not sound business.

Newspaper people sometimes assume too much about what readers know — for example, the difference between the opinions expressed in editorials and those expressed by a news-page columnist, or even the difference between a staff-written obituary and a paid death notice.

It would be best if all the photography produced by the Times newsroom could be held to the same standard. If that is deemed unrealistic for some parts of a fashion magazine, some transparency (and not the kind that has to do with gossamer fabrics) is needed. For example, a brief statement in each issue of T stating its photo practices would help.

Poynter tried to contact both Sullivan and Needleman as to whether Sullivan's suggestion would be incorporated. Both referred us to Corbett, who was out of the office on Wednesday. Corporate communications director Stephanie Yera said she would keep us informed if news administration implemented the idea.

The Times offers guidelines for photo integrity online, stating "in the cases of collages, montages, portraits, fashion or home design illustrations, fanciful contrived situations and demonstrations of how a device is used, our intervention should be unmistakable to the reader, and unmistakably free of intent to deceive."