What, after all, do we believe when we believe that a photograph is true? That it mimics what we would see with our own eyes, if we were standing where the camera was placed? But a camera sees quite differently: For one thing, to take only the most obvious features, photos are rectangular, whereas the human eye's visual field is an ovoid blob. Moreover, "normal" vision is roughly equivalent to what you get from a 35 mm camera lens set somewhere between 42 mm and 50 mm zoom. Anything longer than that shows details no human eye could see; anything shorter shows an unnaturally broad vista. And cameras are notoriously crude when it comes to dynamic range: Highlights get blasted and dark areas become muddy.The lesson?
Needless to say, news photographers shouldn't doctor photographs any more than reporters should make up quotes. But "doctoring" is a slippery concept, and photographic truth is an illusion. Realism is a special effect like any other, and the sooner we realize as much, the better off we'll be; the decrees of photo editors—no post-processing!—only serve to shore up a faith in photographic evidence that was never justified to begin with. Someday we will approach each photograph we look at with the condign skepticism we bring to each story we read. In the meantime, these useful scandals remind us that we're complacent and credulous, and that photography is rife with paradoxes, which can't be solved with hand-waving and apologies.