Results from a new study designed by Distinguished UC Irvine Professor Elizabeth Loftus, as well as Franca Agnoli and Dario Sacchi from the University of Padua in Italy, suggest that digitally altered photographs can easily influence our most concrete memories of public events.
These findings, coupled with recent cases of unethical photo editing at the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, cause some to wonder if our memories are being manipulated by the news sources we trust.
The findings from the study, administered in Italy, were published in the journal ‘Applied Cognitive Psychology.’
During the study, 299 participants were shown either authentic or digitally altered photographs of major public events, then asked to recall certain details about these events. The individuals who viewed the doctored photographs were unknowingly influenced by the added elements in the pictures.
The first photograph used was the famous Tiananmen Square protest in Beijing, China, in which a lone protestor stood in front of a line of army tanks. This image won a World Press Award in 1989 and was also featured on the front cover of ‘Time’ magazine in June of that year.
A significant percentage of the participants said they remembered seeing the photo sometime in the past. The doctored version of this photograph depicted dense crowds of people on either side of the tanks. People who saw this doctored version claimed to remember more protestors in the event than did the participants who were presented with the original picture. The group that saw the doctored photos was also more likely to report that a larger number of people found themselves in the vicinity of the tanks.
The second photograph was a picture of a nonviolent protest that took place on Feb. 15, 2003 in Rome, Italy. It was the largest anti-war protest in the nation’s history. Since the study was done only a year after this protest, all of the participants were old enough to remember the event personally.
This picture was altered to give the protest a more violent appearance. For example, images of an officer in riot gear and a masked protestor were both added to the photograph. People who viewed the doctored version claimed to remember more clashes between law enforcement officers and protestors as well as more injuries. Both images were modified using the software ‘Microsoft Picture It Photo 2001.’
Loftus says that her decision to conduct this study came as a result of an incident in which modified images were used by the Los Angeles Times. In 2003 Brian Walski, a photojournalist at the LA Times, was in Iraq covering the U.S.-led invasion. On one particular day near the end of March, he took multiple photos of a British soldier directing Iraqi people to take cover.
He later combined two of these photos to create a better one. However, a journalist at another newspaper noticed that some of the Iraqis in the background appeared twice. Eventually, the LA Times’ editors were notified. Walski admitted he blended the two pictures and lost his job at the Times.
‘Where are all the [journalists] that haven’t been caught?’ Loftus asks. The urgency of this question is amplified by Loftus’ new findings that photos can alter the memories of entire groups of people.
‘We as a nation, to some extent, are defined by our collective memories,’ Loftus said. ‘One of the things we share is our fascination and horror of certain collective events.’
Loftus expressed concern that doctored photographs could be used to intentionally sway public opinion.
‘I thinks this [is] one more reason for us to be vigilant about doctored photographs