Photographic credibility: An experiment in the believability of news versus advertising imagery

Steven Russell Snyder


Although the ability to manipulate and alter photographic images has existed since the advent of photography in 1826, people are still more likely to believe what they see than what they read or hear. Photographs are considered to possess an innate and tangible presence of reality unlike any other form of communication. With the advent of digital photography and the evolution of photography from a silver-based medium to a silicone-based medium (the computer chip), the public may begin to question the reality of images they see in newspapers and magazines. Although most understand that advertising images are always biased to some extent, we expect news photographs and images to be documents of reality--unbiased, factual representations of events. In contrast to this feeling of truthful news are many recent examples of the media's using digital photography techniques to enhance, manipulate and alter news images. With ethical lapses such as these reported in the media, are photographic images losing their credibility as evidence of anything? The purpose of this study is to examine the effects of the source-related context of a photographic image on viewers' perceptions of image credibility. This experimental study has artificially educated a sample population regarding the digital photographic capabilities used by many newspapers, magazines, photographers, and advertising agencies. Results indicate that knowledge of this technology affects source and context credibility/believability. In addition, results indicate that, as predicted by media professionals, viewers are unable to differentiate altered images from unaltered photographic images.