Why is the New York Times running a censored photo (and why aren’t they telling us this in the caption)?

Late last night, the New York Times published a piece by CJ Chivers about the changing role airpower is playing in America’s combat operations: A Changed Way of War in Afghanistan’s Skies – NYT.com

The article is illustrated by beautiful photographs by Tyler Hicks, arguably one of the Times’ strongest staff photographers. In a slideshow, we see a number of images made on board the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, an aircraft carrier currently in the Gulf of Oman. But if one scrolls through the article, we find an image embedded in the article that didn’t make it to the slideshow. Reproduced below is the photograph in context, and a closer detail shot:

Last image on the left is the photo in question.

The image is also viewable in its original pop-up form. The caption reads as follows:

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Pilots gathered Wednesday morning for a mass briefing. Teams were then assigned to support different units on the ground in Afghanistan.

Look closely at the image, specifically the foreground. The documents being examined by the pilots are blurred. At first it appears as the result of a shallow depth-of-field, but closer examination shows that the censoring is deliberate.

Take a look at the picture that moved on Redux, the agency that handles distribution of the Times’ archive:

In the image description, editors are warned of the censorship – “** EDS.: PHOTO HAS BEEN DIGITALLY MANIPULATED TO OBSCURE CONTENTS OF DOCUMENTS ON TABLE** Military personnel gather during a mass brief for pilots and weapons systems officers on the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the North Arabian Sea, Jan. 12, 2012. The use of air power has changed markedly during the long Afghan conflict, reflecting the political price the U.S. and NATO allies paid because of heavy civilian casualties in traditional aerial bombings. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)”.


So why hasn’t the Times noted this in their caption? 

Last May, Pete Souza’s image from the White House Situation Room launched a debate about censorship in the public eye and historical record. Days later, censorship again came to the forefront when the White House declined to release visual evidence of Osama bin Laden’s corpse.

In an age saturated with imagery, it’s important to establish why an image has been censored as well as the conditions of the censorship. One could reasonably assume that the censorship was a requirement of the access/embed that Chivers and Hicks were granted by the Navy. If this was the case, what harm is there in openly noting the image manipulation in the caption, just as the Washington Post did this week with their front-page HDR composites?

The digital age requires a special care to the fragile trust continually eroding between the media and the American public. By not clearing pointing out the manipulation of Hicks’ image, the Times risks further narrowing of the margin dividing truth in visual imagery and the created world of the future.

(An interesting aside: The Times’ Michael Kamber’s project on censorship, an action not open imposed consciously by the military but also by editors.)

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