Photo Editing and Photo Ethics

Katrina Hester
North Henderson High School
Hendersonville, North Carolina

Overview and Rationale
Many students know that photos can be edited significantly on the computer, but they don’t know how to edit them and don’t know when photos can and can’t be edited. This lesson is to provide students with how-to information on editing photos and have them develop an understanding of the ethics of photo-editing in regard to photojournalism.

Goals for Understanding

  • Essential Question
    • What can and should be done to edit a photo?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • What can be done to make the most of pictures?
    • Why are specific changes to pictures unethical?
    • What are the limits of editing when applied to photojournalism?


Activity 1 (One 50-minute class) What can be done?

  • Students examine photos and photo spreads from magazine/newspaper collection in the classroom, and look for things that have been done to change/edit photos: examples: cut outs, coloration, putting only one part of the image in color, image inside of text, blending/merging images together, warping images.
  • Discuss the effects of such changes — were they done for advertising, for entertainment, for emphasis or for other effects?
  • Begin discussing what students think about the ethics of such changes. Are they OK for an ad? A feature? An editorial cartoon? What about a hard news story? Begin developing a photo-editing policy.
  • Homework: bring in an old family photo (or more than one) preferably on disk, to work with the next day. Have extras available if needed.

Activity 2 (One 50 minute class) How can it be done?

  • Students will need access to a computer with Adobe Photoshop. This can be done as a classroom project, with all students working simultaneously, or, if technology resources are more limited, it can be done as a group project over several days, with each group getting a set amount of time to work on the computers.
  • Have students, in groups of two, open a photo in Photoshop. They will need a taskbar information handout, and sets of directions on how to: balance color, remove dust/scratches, cut-out, and blend images.
  • First, have students research, using Help, how to remove scratches from a scanned photo. This is to encourage students to understand how to use the help screen in Photoshop, when unsure of how to do something.
  • Have students do simple photo-editing tasks — perhaps using a handout. Students must chose one or more of the editing tasks and complete that task for a photo to turn in for credit.

Activity 3 (One 50-minute classes) What shouldn’t be done

  • Read coverage of several recent media magazines who have admitted culpability in regards to editing/doctoring photos. Include Poynter online article about Brian Walski’s faux paux as a photo journalist in April 2002 — includes Flash document on how the photo was edited. More articles are below, but samples include
  • Another, more recent example involved Israel’s bombardment of Beirut in 2006 and a photo that was manipulated and had to be withdrawn by Reuters
  • Students will then show their finished photos, and talk about what they did to change the photo. We will then examine which changes were ethical and which were not. I will provide examples of photos that have been edited to supplement student examples.


  • Students will turn in a draft of a photo editing and crediting policy, as well as their revised photos. We will discuss and adopt a policy for the news publication (or yearbook) for that year regarding what we consider ethical photo manipulation for that year, which will then become the photo editor of that publication’s responsibility for the term.