Developing a Critical Eye: Why Media Literacy Matters

In Conjunction with the Peabody Essex Museum exhibition:
Eye Spy, Playing with Perception

June 19, 2010 to May 1, 2011

In this age of digital imaging, we’re comfortable adjusting contrast, tweaking color, or even adding an absent uncle to a family photo. Advertisers also alter or enhance images to get our attention. But what level of alteration is acceptable for the media? Are standards the same for fashion or entertainment magazines as for news outlets? Should they be? How aware are you of our world’s altered realities?

In popular magazines, altering images has become standard practice. To expose the extent of retouching, the women’s-issues blog Jezebel published the before-and-after photos of a Redbook cover featuring musician Faith Hill. Redbook’s editor-in-chief responded, “The retouching we did on Faith Hill’s photo for the July cover of Redbook is completely in line with industry standards.”

Retouching alterations included changing Hill’s neck, earlobe, back, arms, lines and shadows around the face, hair, and skin tone.

Many organizations have criticized the widespread practice of excessive retouching in  magazines, raising concerns about setting unreasonable expectations that can lead to self-esteem issues and behavioral disorders. Similar concerns surround advertisements whose altered images create misleading impressions about a product’s effectiveness.

And the pursuit of the “ideal” image isn’t confined to advertising and popular culture. In 2006, news media giant Reuters fired photojournalist Adnan Hajj when it was discovered that he had altered his photos of smoke rising above a bombed city in Lebanon to intensify the effect. Further investigation revealed that this was not the only photograph Hajj had altered, and Reuters ultimately removed all his work from its archives. Hajj is just one example among many.

Altered photo on left, original photo on right

Why does “a little cosmetic alteration” matter? Not only does this violate established rules of journalistic ethics, but altered images have been shown to affect people’s memories of public events. According to a study by Italian researchers, viewing digitally altered images of protests and rallies can change our perception of the emotions involved, including the size of the crowd and even perceived violence.

Blatant or subtle, examples of “altered reality” abound in today’s culture, so it’s important to become media savvy! Below are resources to help develop a critical media eye and to raise awareness in children about image manipulation in the media at large.

Further Resources

For Adults
Dove: Evolution Watch the dramatic transformation of an ordinary woman into a billboard model through use of make-up and digital manipulation.

Digital Forensics: 5 Ways to Spot a Fake Photo from Scientific American Tips for analyzing photos for evidence of manipulation.

American Photography: A Century of Images from PBS A short essay on ‘Digital Truth’ examining the historical record of photo tampering and the possible ramifications for justice and memory.

For Kids
This step-by-step site uses a fake magazine cover featuring a 14-year-old girl to show
the impact of retouching.
Get an ‘ad-ucational’ look at who creates ads, how, and why through this video-game
style site.

Don’t Buy It! Get Media Smart from PBS Kids
Explores advertising tricks and techniques across many themes, including food, clothing, and entertainment, with “behind-the-scenes” elements and interactives.

Source Articles

Carmon, Irin. “Losing Faith.” WWD 17 Jul 2007: n. pag. Web. 10 Jun 2010.

Moe. “Here’s Our Winner! ‘Redbook’ Shatters Our ‘Faith’ In Well, Not Publishing, But Maybe God.” Jezebel 16 Jul 2007: n. pag. Web. 10 Jun 2010.

“Picture editors shocked by doctored Reuters photos.” Press Gazette: Journalism Today
11 Aug 2006: n. pag. Web. 10 Jun 2010.

University of California – Irvine. “Memory Can Be Manipulated By Photos.” ScienceDaily
21 November 2007. 10 June 2010 <

More ‘Brain Art’

Susan Aldworth (British, b. 1955) Brainscape 18, 2006

Yes, there are more fun and fabulous examples of brain-inspired art coming to a Massachusetts museum! Landscapes of the Mind: Contemporary Artists Contemplate the Brain is running at the Williams College Museum of Art from January 30–May 2, 2010.  (See the full press release here.)  Being who I am, I’m particularly excited about their family day with student-led tours and art making activities in March, as well as intrigued by the fact that this exhibit, which is all about what is literally inside your head and therefore something we never see of ourselves, is tying in with the museum’s ‘year-long focus on art and landscape.’   I think there are a lot of fun parallels people could draw with other ways artists, writers, and scientists have imagined, described, and mapped what goes on in the brainscape.

Historically, for instance, there’s all the wackiness associated with phrenology, (very popular in Victorian times).  Art-historically there are those fabulous surrealists (or insert adjective of choice depending on your own opinion) like Salvador Dali.  Scientifically we have all those brain-mapping studies, and virtual reconstructions through forensic anthropology, and Einstein’s brain in a jar (more than one jar, apparently).

Persistence of Memory by Salvadore Dali

Persistence of Memory by Salvadore Dali

Back to Lunar New Year and other fun multicultural stuff in the next post, I promise!

Windows on the World At Large (And Small!)

Today I bring you a few ‘fun-with-photos’ links.

The Infinite Photograph from National Geographic’s Green Guide — You’ve probably all seen those really cool photocollages: VanGogh’s Starry Night redone through tiny pictures from NASA, Yoda reconstructed with a million Star Wars screencaps, etc.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve wished over and over for a magnifying glass while you were looking at them–fortunately, the folks over at NG seem to be a lot like me.  *wink*  Their Infinite Photograph gives you an opening scene, into which you may zoom to see how it is constructed out of hundreds of other photographs, and keep zooming in until you get an entirely new scene–then start zooming all over again from there.  Not just a really whizbang techno effect, it’s also a collection of incredibly beautiful images from all over the world.  And if you’re lucky, it will also inspire you to pick up your camera and head outdoors.


Miniature Art — I happened across this collection of photographs/miniatures by accident while working on an Inventors’ Workshop challenge.  There’s something fascinating about seeing the world from the Brobdignagian point of view, and though some of the pictures in this collection are clearly the work of a somewhat quirky sense of humor and propriety, they’re fascinating, fun, and a great way to start a discussion about scale in math, form, function, and design in science, point of view in literature or art, and ‘just why are the Belgians so fond of Mini-Europe anyway?’ in geography.  🙂

Behind the Scenes at the Harvard Museums — Have I mentioned yet my firm belief that a lot of us who work in museums do so because we really like getting to go through the ‘staff only’ doors to see the cool hidden stuff?  Wired Science brings us some really beautiful photos of some of the strangest, coolest, most random hidden favorites from the Harvard Museum of Natural History.  (I notice they do not include the classroom where I had my Urbanization of Ancient Cultures class.  Which was cool.  And dusty.)

And finally, a graphics resource, just for the heck of it.  You have a pretty cool picture for an exhibit/mailing/program/birthday card, but really don’t know how to frame it or what color scheme to use?

Check out Pictaculous, which allows you to load a picture and then will give you a selection of color palettes from which to choose for further graphic design.  It’s a fun tool, and if you’re feeling really brave you can screencap your favorite palette and drop it right into your photo editing program to have available for your color selection tool.