The latest in the world of photojournalism contest ethics and photo sleuthing took another turn yesterday with World Press Photos’ rescinding a first-place award after disqualifying 22 percent of the entries that had made the penultimate round.

Amid controversy, World Press Photo announced yesterday that based on its investigation, it is withdrawing the controversial “Dark Heart of Europe” award presented to Giovanni Troilo. Troilo, an Italian independent photographer, had received the award for his 10-photograph series depicting the gritty Charleroi city of Belgium in this year's WPP Contemporary Issues Story category.

The 58th Annual World Press Photo competition’s organizers previously disclosed that 22 percent of the finalists were disqualified due to excessive post processing, or digital manipulation.

“It seems some photographers can’t resist the temptation to aesthetically enhance their images during post-processing either by removing small details to ‘clean up’ an image, or sometimes by excessive toning that constitutes a material change to the image. Both types of retouching clearly compromise the integrity of the image. Consequently, the jury rejected 22 percent of those entries that had reached the penultimate round of the contest and were therefore not considered for prizes.” wrote Lars Boering, managing director, World Press Photo.

The action shows WPP’s commitment to keeping its competition in line with traditional photojournalism.

It’s worthwhile to re-examine photojournalism ethics amid recent changes in digital photographic imaging and social media sharing.

In a digital era of so many options “because you can, does not mean that you should,” said Keith Jenkins, general manager at National Geographic Digital and 2013 WPP multimedia chairman.

He said a concerted effort is required to identify the issues.

They include:

  1. The articulation of guidelines that define accuracy expectations.
  2. The effectiveness of contest evaluation methods when identifying manipulation. How far is too far?
  3. The impact on audience as it relates to our credibility and perceived trustworthiness. Who cares and why?

Michele McNally, director of photography and assistant managing editor of The New York Times, offers this perspective: “The vast majority of the 20 percent were obvious deceptions – there were addition or subtraction of material, that was really evident.”

“Digital darkroom processing…is not the same as the old wet, analog darkroom,” said McNally. That is why the rules are outdated: “So much does not apply and we need clearer standards.”

McNally said she would like to see a forum convened that attempts to offer “clear guidelines, honest, frank discussion and educational reform.”

Boering said in a statement: “Our contest rules clearly state that the content of the image should not be altered. This year’s jury was very disappointed to discover how careless some photographers had been in post-processing their files for the contest.”

WPP plans to the work with the international photojournalistic community in efforts to better understand the reasoning behind the heavy-handed editing trend so it can help establish a new set of guidelines for the photojournalism industry.

A bridge between WPP and NPPA
It is important to establish and enforce ethical guidelines for contest and competitions, said Mark Dolan, president of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). For Dolan and the NPPA, “credibility is probably the single most important attribute a journalist, or a journalism company, can point to – a combination of trustworthiness and expertise.”

Dolan added: “The majority of the public will more than likely forget the name of a journalist who strayed from those guidelines – and they may even forget the name of the journalism organization that journalist worked for – what they will remember is that they were deceived, and that hurts all of us.”

Offering Brian Williams as an example of that, Dolan explained that “right now attention is focused on him, but eventually, for many members of the public, this will just be one more nail in the coffin of their belief in, and trust of, ‘the media’ at large.”

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct percentage of photo entries that were disqualified from the WPP's contest.