Editing yearbook photos not uncommon, says printer
It's not unusual for Utah high schools to edit yearbook photos to delete facial piercings, to make athletes look faster, or even, as happened at Wasatch High School, to make students appear more modest.
"It varies from school to school as to what's acceptable and whether to do any edits," said Scott Wolters, a sales representative for Herff Jones, a company that trains yearbook staffs and prints Wasatch's and a number of other Utah yearbooks. "It's up to every single district and every single school."
For Terri Hall, the Utah director of the Journalism Education Association (JEA), the fact that photo edits are common means one thing:
Utah high schools, unlike others throughout the country, often do not regard their yearbooks as journalism, she said.
"It seems to be more of a 'support the school' or 'make the school look the best it possibly can' effort," she said.
It's considered unethical in journalism to tamper with photos.
A caption should describe any edited photo as an illustration.
Hall is the adviser for Davis High School's newspaper, online student news website and broadcast effort. She just finished a master's degree in journalism education.
Kelly Furnas, executive director of the Kansas State University-based JEA, said even if a school does not regard its yearbook as journalism, manipulating photos is a bad idea.
"Once you start to embellish the truth or mask what's actually happening at your school, at what point do [people] start distrusting anything in the yearbook?"
"If you're trying to paint a rosy picture of how the administration wishes the school was, it becomes useless information," Furnas said.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said he's never heard of "modesty edits."
While it's not uncommon for schools to exclude students from yearbooks if they wear clothing that does not comport with a school dress code, "To tamper with the clothing students have picked out, which is something very special to them, is really very extreme."
Nonetheless, he doesn't believe a student could sue successfully over a edit job that adds sleeves to a top or a gusset to cover cleavage.
"The only time the First Amendment comes into play is when one is stopped from expressing a message," LoMonte said. "I doubt that any of those students are going to be able to say that going sleeveless was a message."
It's considered unethical to alter photos because journalism is about reality, he said. "People who take photos for a living are very stringent about printing the photo as reality, as it looks through the lens."
Wolters, of Herff Jones, said Utah schools that follow journalistic standards generally describe any edited photos as illustrations.
Printers such as Herff Jones, which has a printing plant in Logan, generally do not edit the pages that yearbook staffs submit, although they may call the school if they see a photo with an overt gang sign or something, he said.
Wolters believes some Utah school administrators would welcome laws such as one in Colorado giving student yearbook staffs complete control over the product.
Such laws can give schools legal protection from any problems arising from yearbook staff decisions.
He has seen Colorado yearbooks with multi-page spreads about body piercings and tattoos, and others with pages about unwed parents.
"There they have freedom of press rights for their yearbook staffs."