Malicious Manipulation: The Deadliest Sin in Visual Storytelling

This is a jackalope. This image, which is on a postcard currently framed in my office, is the reason that I thought this antlered rabbit was a real species until I was 12 years old. Well… that image and the fact that my father told me about all the jackalopes that used to run around the desert in California where he and my mom lived when they were first married.

This image is the epitome of what using visuals to enhance storytelling can do. My dad told me they were real, recounted his experiences with these animals, and now I have seen this photograph for myself. Why would I question their existence?

Accidentally tricking your child into believing in a fictitious animal is a no harm, no foul outcome of photo manipulation. I’d even go so far as to say that accidentally tricking the masses into believing in fictitious beings, as Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright managed to do with their staged photos of The Cottingley Fairies, is still relatively harmless. As the Museum of Hoaxes website notes of the 1920 fairy phenomenon that swept through Britain with the help of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “by the end of World War One the English were emotionally bruised and battered by four years of unrelenting bloodshed. They seemed to be in need of something that would reaffirm their belief in goodness and innocence. They found this reaffirmation in the fairy photographs of Frances and Elsie.” (The Museum of Hoaxes, 2015).

Frances and the Fairies. Taken July 1917.

The art of photo manipulation has long given stories feet that carry them far beyond their original boundaries. Often, the greatest issues with these manipulated images is the twinge of disappointment the viewer, who wants to believe their eyes, feels when they realize they have been fooled.

Unfortunately, as with all good things, bad actors will undoubtedly come along and ruin it for the rest of us. Agenda-driven photo manipulation is the most deadly sin of visual storytelling. The New York Times reports that from a survey of photojournalists, more than half reported staging photos some of the time.

Setting up photos matters because as journalists, when we arrive at a scene, we say we witness this. We witness this and this is the truth, in practical terms, and we offer this to the public. And when you stage or pose or change that information you are jeopardizing our profession, and the trust involved in what we do. 

Darcy Padilla. (The New York Times, 2015).

Beyond staging photographs, manipulation in the editing process has long driven social, cultural, and political issues and agendas. During the 2004 elections this photoshopped image of John Kerry and Jane Fonda may very well have negatively affected Kerry’s Presidential bid.

More recently, the creation of deepfakes, manipulated videos created by AI that look and sound real, have driven the knife more deeply into the trust of institutions like the government and the media than 1,000 doctored images ever could.

One obvious use of deepfakes would be to falsely implicate people in scandals. Even if the incriminating footage is subsequently proven to be fake, the damage to the victim’s reputation may be impossible to repair.

(Benjamin, 2019)

Human beings want to trust what we can see and hear, but deepfakes are calling even that into question. As Benjamin states in the article Deepfake videos could destroy trust in society, “Even if the incriminating footage is subsequently proven to be fake, the damage to the victim’s reputation may be impossible to repair.” In a post-truth society that allows its confirmation bias to run unchecked, people are going to remember the piece of information they see or hear that affirms their beliefs. Even if it is later proven to be untrue, our belief perseverance bias will allow us to continue holding on to that initial belief (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007).

Santiago Lyon tells The New York Times, “Photojournalists and photo editors have serious responsibilities to the viewers of their images, and clarity, accuracy and transparency are our allies.” (The New York Times, 2015). I believe that is true for anyone creating or even sharing content online. Understanding the impact that sharing misinformation through doctored or staged images can have on the fabric of our society is paramount in rebuilding trust amongst one another and the information that we consume.


Baumeister, R., & Vohs, K. (2007). Belief Perseverance. SAGE Knowledge; SAGE Publications, Inc.

Benjamin, G. (2019, February 6). Deepfake videos could destroy trust in society – here’s how to restore it. The Conversation.

CNET News Staff. (2011, May 5). Pictures that lie (photos). CNET.

Shao, G. (2019, October 14). What “deepfakes” are and how they may be dangerous. CNBC; CNBC.

The Museum of Hoaxes. (2015). The Cottingley Fairies. Museum of Hoaxes.

The New York Times. (2015, October 29). Staging, Manipulation and Truth in Photography. Lens Blog.

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