Ethics concerns the matter of altering sound and visual originals

The ability to manipulate digitized images and sound has brought a new tool to art but a big new problem to journalism. How can we now know that what we’re seeing or hearing is the truth?

Manipulation of sound: Frank Sinatra’s 1994 album duets pairs him through technological tricks with singers like Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Bono of U2. Sinatra recorded solos in a recording studio. His singing partners, while listening to his taped performance on earphones dubbed in their own voices. This was done not only at different times but often, through distortion-free phone lines, from different places. The illusion in the final recording is that the two singers are standing shoulder to shoulder.

Some listeners feel that new technology changes the character of a performance for the better that the sour notes and clinkers can be edited out. Others, however, think the practice of assembling bits and pieces in a studio drains the music of its essential flow and unity. Whatever the problems of misrepresentation in art, however, they pale beside those in journalism. Could not a radio station edit a stream of digitized sound to achieve an entirely different effect what actually happened?

Manipulation of photos: When O. J Simpson was arrested on suspicion of murder, the two principal newsmagazines both tan pictures of him on their covers. Newspaper ran the mug shot unmodified, as taken by the Los Angeles police department. Time, however, had the shot redone with special effects as a ‘’photo-illustration’’ by an artist working with a computer. Simpson’s image was darkened so that it still looked like the photo but some critics said with a more sinister cast to it.

Should a magazine that reports the news be taking such artistic license? Should national geographic in 1982 have moved two Egyptian pyramids closer together so that they would fit on a vertical cover? Was it ever right for TV guide in 1989 to run a cover showing Oprah Winfrey’s head placed on Ann-Margret’s body? The personal for abuse is clear. For 150 years the photographic image has been viewed as more persuasive than written accounts as a form of evidence says one writer now this authenticity is breaking down under the assault of technology. Asks a former photo editor of the New York Times magazine what would happen if the photograph appeared to be a straightforward recording of physical reality but could no longer be relied upon to depict actual people and events? Many editors try to distinguish between photos used for commercial (advertising) versus journalism or for feature stories versus news stories. However, this distinction implies that the integrity of photos applies only to some narrow definition of news. In the end it can be argued tampered photographs pollute the credibility of all of journalism.

Manipulation of video: the technique of morphing used in still photos takes a quantum jump when used in movies videos and television commercials. In morphing a film or video image is displayed in a computer screen and altered pixel by pixel, or dot by dot. The result is that the image metamorphoses into something else a pair of lips into the front of a Toyota for example. Morphing and other techniques of digital image manipulation have had a tremendous impact on film making. Director and digital pioneer Robert Zemeckis (death becomes her) compares the new technology to the advent of sound in Hollywood. It can be used to add and erase actors. In Forrest Gump, many scenes involved old film and TV footage that had been altered so that the tom hanks character was interacting with historical figures.

Films and videotapes are widely thought to be somewhat accurate versions of reality (as evidenced by the reaction to the amateur videotape of the Rodney king beating by police in Los Angeles). Thus the possibility of digital alterations raises some real problems. One is the possibility of doctoring videotapes s to represents suffer on loss in resolution there are no generations thus it will be impossible for historians and archivists to tell whether the videotape they’re viewing is the real thing or not. 

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