[Sorry. This should have been posted Friday. Pre-Xmas fog.]
Above: Admit it. That's how most of you (of a certain age, anyway) know the story.
"Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”
— Ebenezer Scrooge
Last weekend brought another embarrassing example of how editors’ efforts to reach out and get our readers more involved in the practice of journalism can come back to bite us in the butt roll.
Andy Howell, executive editor of the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, was moved to write a public apology for his paper’s Nov. 27 cover photo. Which is sad, because the picture was a striking image of a modern FrontRunner commuter train on an overpass above a restored Union Pacific steam engine, both of them roaring their way from Salt Lake City to Ogden.
It was a great illustration of the old vs. the new. The only problem was, it was a fake. But only barely.
The photo came, not from a Standard-Examiner staffer, but a frequent and trusted contributor of both articles and stories. He had captured the images about 10 minutes apart. Then he used modern imaging technology to make it appear as though the two trains had crossed paths simultaneously.
There was, it seems, no attempt to deceive. The trains were running along the same basic path at virtually the same time. If the photographer had set up farther south, specifically at the Salt Lake City FrontRunner stop, he might have caught the two trains in the same shot with no special effects necessary, told the same story, and avoided a lot of embarrassment all around.
Or, the photographer could have been better briefed on the rules of the journalistic road, which hold, among other things, that photos are not to be altered, unless they are clearly labeled as created illustrations.
The contributor readily admitted what he had done when praised for the pluck, or luck, employed to catch the trains together. These folks, at least, won’t make that mistake again.
This was very different than the Richard Burwash case that engulfed West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder and Deseret Media a few weeks ago. Winder fessed up to submitting a handful of articles, supposedly written by the fictional Burwash to hide the fact that articles designed to make WVC look good were submitted by that city’s mayor. The Deseret News and KSL.com, taken in by the deception, published them, much to the detriment of their Deseret Connect citizen journalism experiment.
It is fitting that the photo that burned the fingers on the keyboards in Ogden was an illustration of old and new technologies running in parallel, because that’s just what’s happening in the media business.
Many of us are hoping to make our readers more active participants in our journalism. We do that to pique their interest in our particular offerings, hoping to maintain local loyalty in a new geography-doesn’t-matter media landscape. And we do it because shrinking staffs with additional platforms to maintain will make us a lot more open to over-the-transom contributions from our readers.
It also leaves us — and our readers — a lot more vulnerable to being confused by those who don’t get it, or snookered by those who get it all too well.
Shoot, when even a Salt Lake Tribune institution such as Robert Kirby gets away with labeling a contributed op-ed column he didn’t like as an “editorial” — even though “editorial” means only the official position of a newspaper’s editorial board — it’s clear that we’ve all got a steep learning curve ahead of us.
• George Pyle, a Salt Lake Tribune editorial writer, has been practicing journalism for 34 years. Maybe one day he’ll get it right.