3 things you can learn from Florida Atlantic University’s decision to “Photoshop” away crack cocaine

Student newsrooms usually maintain an inexplicable sense of humor that would appall most of polite society and mentally scar most human resources officials. One newsroom I visited had a “Wall O’ Creepy,” where staffers would post odd pictures or weird stories. Others had inside jokes, Photoshopped images and random quotes written, stapled or stenciled on walls, computer monitors and desks.

In the newsrooms I worked in and oversaw, we had all manner of oddity posted about. My boss at Ball State would usually call or email me to let me know if an important alumnus or big-name journalism personality was visiting the area that day, asking me to “sanitize” the newsroom. I know I failed at this at least once, as one of the top editors at the Indianapolis Star stopped by and happened to notice a photo of a monkey performing a sex act on itself that was glued to a computer monitor in our design pod. The conversation was awkward:

Him: Is that monkey (EXPLETIVE) itself?
Me: Yes, sir, I believe so… Over here is our photography desk…

Like I said, we’re all a bit weird.

Even as administrators wince at our idiosyncrasies, they often like to promote the newspapers on their website, thus leading to the issue for today’s post: How to handle the weirdness when promoting an inherently weird operation.

Florida Atlantic University has a long, awkward history in dealing with its amazingly good student newspaper, the University Press. The school once fired the paper’s adviser, Michael Koretzky, only to have him continue to volunteer to help the students, thus leading the school to try to fire him again. The student government also tried to get rid of a student editor because he pointed at someone. The paper has broken numerous stories on student government misdeeds, reported on campus concerns and generally been a pain in the keester to the university through strong journalistic practices. However, as a successful and valuable entity, the school included a photo of the newsroom on its website, albeit one that didn’t quite reflect the actual state of the newsroom.

“When the photographer visited our newsroom, the editors were in a meeting,” Koretzky explained in an email. “She told us to ‘act naturally,’ but apparently, our natural state isn’t photogenic. So she asked us to pose as if we were critiquing the paper – which was months old because we don’t print over summer.”

The photographer took several shots of the posed staffers, as well as a random woman who just came in to ask questions about how the paper worked. However, the background included a not-so-PR quote, as shown in a photo Koretzky shared:


When the image the photographer shot appeared on the FAU website, however, the quote was gone:


“The photographer then said she’d Photoshop out the Dan Rather quote,” Koretzky said. “I don’t think we believed her, because that seemed silly and FAU’s administration doesn’t have a reputation for completing tasks it touts. Weirdly, the photog shot only that angle, not the other walls that have no crack cocaine quotes.”

(Side note: I wasn’t clear if this was the photographer’s own sense of what to do or if this was a FAU marketing policy. I shudder to think what would happen to the photographer if she just did this, handed it over to an editor who ran it with the understanding it wasn’t Photoshopped and then caught the brunt of the backlash. This is why being on the same page as the boss matters.)

The fields of news, marketing and PR have different standards of what is and isn’t acceptable in a case like this. In addition, visual journalists have specific ethical standards as well that mandate what can and can’t be done to manipulate reality.

Generally speaking, in news, it would be a large ethical breach to manipulate images and news outlets have fired photographers for doing this in some cases. Marketing, advertising and public relations have more leeway in some cases, but in some cases, professionals in these areas have been excoriated for some Photoshop manipulations.

In the case of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, the school had to reprint its entire run of freshman welcome guides and apologize to the public after officials manipulated a photo to make the student body appear more diverse.

(Note the one guy’s head on the left behind the woman in white’s arm.)

To get a fuller grasp on this, I asked several people who have worked on both sides of the fence to get a handle on the FAU’s approach to the “crack quote” in the image.

The most basic answer was one Koretzky noted earlier: Don’t shoot toward the wall with the quote on it.

“Two words: different angle,” a former news photographer and current visual journalism professor said. “Shooting the room at a different angle could resolve any ethical dilemma.”

Although the professor said marketing materials, including photos for advertisements, do alter images, the subject of the photo makes this manipulation a bit more concerning.

“I don’t mind elements being edited out for most advertising–that’s the nature of it, like taking out a street sign for a car on road ad,” he said. “Except in this case the promo is for a real tangible place, whose mission is the truth. The university is just asking for attention and not the kind they desire.”

One pro, who has served as a communications director for multiple organizations and who also worked as a newspaper journalist, said the university didn’t do anything to violate basic tenets of marketing.

“I think the university acted within bounds,” he said. “Marketing is about presenting things in the best light to the most people. So while students will find that quote inspiring, parents and donors might not. As long as the photo was not used in a journalistic capacity, which by your description it wasn’t, then it’s totally in bounds.”

Another pro, who wrote for the editorial side of magazines and also served in the marketing department of a major university, said she disliked both the shot and the alteration.

“I don’t think the PhotoShopping is a good idea, BUT i wouldn’t use that quote OR that photo,” she wrote. “Personally, I’d just use something altogether different.”

Whether this is an acceptable practice often lies in the eye of the beholder, the ethical standards of the organization and the common sense of the media professionals involved. However, here are a couple points to consider when you find yourself in a similar situation:

  • Get more than you need: This is a mantra of most broadcast journalists when it comes to gathering video and audio. The idea is to make sure you have enough content to cover your needs so you don’t end  up having to cut a corner to make something work, thus opening yourself up to an awkward situation like this. The photographer could have shot in multiple directions, taken various types of shots and done more to avoid the quote on the wall. It wasn’t as if she didn’t notice it. When you see that something might create a problem, get some backup options to keep yourself out of trouble.


  • Don’t be lazy: The photographing of this newsroom wasn’t a one-time-only deal, like a photographer capturing the first moon landing or a random explosion in a small town. It’s a newsroom that exists on the campus and is probably within walking distance of wherever the FAU marketing organization resides. Once she realized the words “crack cocaine” were going to be in the shot no matter how she cropped it, she could have probably found another 15 minutes to walk back to the newsroom and shoot some other shots. Photoshopping, while an important skill, was a crutch for laziness in this case. It was so much easier to just “blue-out” the background than to go shoot more images. Don’t be lazy. Go back and do the job right.


  • Know your code of ethics: I am uncertain as to which code this individual or the FAU marketing department adheres, but understanding that one exists and what it says about certain things can’t hurt. The Public Relations Society of America’s code includes a line about honesty: “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” The American Marketing Association has similar language pertaining to honesty, transparency and fairness in its code. Does a staged photo fit that level of accuracy and truth? Probably, as posed images are a standard element of most marketing materials and even some posed shots (environmental portraits, group shots) make their way into newspapers and magazines. Is the Photoshopping here accurate and truthful? Eh… Maybe yes, maybe no. The point is that understanding what your particular code has to say about certain activities might give you pause before simply saying something like, “I’ll just PhotoShop that out.”

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