Under no circumstances is it acceptable for a news outlet to doctor, and then publish, a photograph. To do so is akin to false reporting and effectively undermines the integrity of the organization.
There are indeed photographs that are too graphic to be displayed in an overt setting but that still ought to be publicized. New York’s Daily News, intending to print an image that might illustrate the horrors of the Boston Marathon bombings, ultimately doctored the image to make the displayed victim’s injury appear less gruesome. Undoubtedly well intentioned, the Daily News made a negligent decision.
While the published photograph does not lose its poignant effect and achieves a realistically honest representation of the day’s tragedies, it is, in principle, irresponsible. The Daily News has no right, regardless of their rationalization, to mislead the public. Anything that a serious news organization publishes is — or at least should be — assumed honest and true. Even if the intention is to mask a graphic detail, that detail remains a component of the complete truth of the image and therefore must be shown, or at least acknowledged.
That said, news outlets, in light of such tragedies as the Boston Marathon bombing, walk a thin line between printing explicit, accurate and appropriate images and printing exceedingly gory, offensive and inappropriate images. News organizations should use discretion in determining the extent to which they visually display horrific and upsetting situations.
There are ways to do so, however, without doctoring a photograph and effectively misrepresenting the truth. If an image is too graphic to publish in good conscience, then it is reasonable that a news outlet simply refrain from publishing it.
At the same time, news outlets have a responsibility to report on situations — especially tragedies — as completely as possible. Blurring a particularly disturbing component of an image is thus a more reasonable alternative. Doing so withholds exceptionally graphic content while the audience is still aware that there exists other content than what is provided.
The tangible difference between two such techniques — doctoring or blurring an image — is likely negligible, yet the principle behind the difference is vital. Regardless of how small and seemingly insignificant a change in a photograph might be, a change makes the photograph a fabrication. And, if the photograph is reported as an accurate depiction of an event, any fabrication questions the integrity of the news organization that presents it.