If journalists wonder why the public doesn't always trust them as much as they would like, the answer is as close at hand as the latest issue of Time magazine.
Likewise, if the press wants to know how to win public confidence by enhancing its credibility, the answer can be found no farther away than the latest issue of Newsweek.This week the two news magazines printed on their covers the same mug shot of O.J. Simpson taken by the Los Angeles Police Department. But the resulting images of Simpson are startling, appallingly different.
While Newsweek ran an unaltered version of the photo, Time tinkered with it electronically. Though the tinkering leaves Simpson's facial expression unchanged, it darkens his skin and stubble and blurs the contours of his face. Moreover, the background is lightened, intensifying the contrast and evoking a more baleful and somber mood.
Though fine print describes the Time cover as a "photo-illustration," few readers generally pay much attention to such wording and even fewer know precisely what it means.
The upshot is to play upon the false, insulting racial stereotype of black males as menacing just because of their race and gender. And it's a triumph of merchandising over careful, accurate journalism.
Sadly, this isn't the first such episode. Last year Time was forced to apologize for publishing purported pictures of child prostitutes in Moscow it later admitted were staged. In another infamous case, heads rolled at NBC News after it was disclosed that a GM truck had been rigged to catch fire in a crash test. Early this year, New York Newsday published a front page photo that had been manipulated to falsely show Olympic skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding skating near each other at a practice.
The challenge now is to make the Time fiasco the last such journalistic travesty. The problem will end only when reporters and editors learn that they are supposed to inform and enlighten their readers and viewers, not manipulate them.