Manufacturing Martha

How can you be sure that what you see and hear in the media is real and true?

After all, we live in an age of media scams and scandals – from Jayson Blair making it up in The New York Times to Bobby Read blowing it up on NBC's Dateline – not to mention Jack Kelly of USA Today, Mary Mapes and Dan Rather of CBS News, Jeff Gannon/Guckert of "Talon News," and so on, seemingly ad infinitum and certainly ad nauseum.

That's why this week's Newsweek cover – which features what looks a lot like a photo of Martha Stewart, but isn't – is troubling.

Instead of a photo, Newsweek ran a "photo-illustration" of Martha – whatever that is.

Sounds kinda like the processed "cheese food" slices available at your local supermarket, doesn't it? Not quite cheese, but ... cheesy nonetheless.

For some odd reason, Newsweek assistant managing editor/designer Lynn Staley thought it would be a good idea to create an image that combined a photo of Stewart's face with another photo of someone else's body.

Go figure ... According to Staley, the idea was to portray Stewart as she "may appear" upon her release from prison. "The piece that we commissioned was intended to show Martha as she would be, not necessarily as she is," Staley explained.

Back in the day, I worked at a weekly newspaper in Boston where Staley served as a design director. She's a wonderful person and a swell designer – but she's not a journalist. So it's no wonder she was surprised at the negative reaction to her altering reality, and then not making it clear to readers.

"We haven't had this particular cigar blow up in our face in the past," Staley said. "If there were people who were misled, that's a problem."

Well, sure it's a problem. Polls show that citizens distrust the media more than almost any other institution - and needless stunts like Staley's only contribute to that negative perception.

But I don't blame Newsweek's designers. After all, don't they have any journalists left there? Someone who might have thought better of a "newsweekly" putting a made-up image on its cover without making it entirely clear that the image was a composite?

Staley's response is that a credit on page 3 with the table of contents of the magazine did make clear that the image on the cover was a composite.

"In this case, we identified this piece as a photo illustration," she said.

But how many of us read the fine print of credits, instead of just looking at the cover image and accepting it for what is appears to be – particularly when the image does not look artificial and is easily mistaken for an unmodified photo?

In retrospect, Staley says "I wish we had maybe been even less successful in conjuring up Martha," she said, "and maybe a little more over the top."

I have a better solution to propose – stop altering reality and start reporting it.

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