Photojournalists are held to a high degree of ethics because of the importance and impact of their work. To address this, several professional photojournalist organizations and publishers have created guidelines on how to appropriately post-process an image. Today the average media consumer is exposed to a diverse news landscape, and there is a tendency for consumers to trust photojournalistic images as being representative of the truth (Farid, 2006). This research considers to what extent can the average media consumer distinguish between ethically and unethically post-processed images.

This study aimed to discover how well people can distinguish between three categories of images when viewing them quickly on their mobile devices. Using a web-based survey, participants were asked to identify various images as either original, enhanced, or manipulated. Original images had post-processing limited to cropping and having the aspect ratio changed. Enhanced images had aesthetic changes and did not attempt or intend to change the content or meaning of the image. Manipulated images either had material added, removed, or significantly changed. Furthermore, the image dataset was annotated to describe broad content characteristics such as people vs. no people and inside vs. outside. A Friedman test with a pairwise comparison with a Bonferroni correction was utilized to determine if there were differences in the percentage correct by semantic categories (People/No People, Indoors/Outdoors) and manipulation sub-categories (Add, Remove, Change).

Recruited through social media and word of mouth, 1,919 participants responded to an average of 101 images out of a total of a possible 164, with an average of 1,180 responses per image. Participants were encouraged to provide their first impression. Responses were more likely to label the images as original (53.9%) compared to identifying them as enhanced (30.1%) or manipulated (16.0%). On average, only 36% of the images were correctly identified. Overall, participants’ responses indicated that unless the manipulation was overly apparent or semantically absurd, they believed that the image must be either the original or enhanced.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Photography--Retouching--Public opinion; Image processing--Digital techniques--Public opinion; Photojournalism--Public opinion; Mass media--Objectivity--Public opinion; Media literacy--Research

Publication Date


Document Type


Student Type


Degree Name

Print Media (MS)


Christine Heusner

Advisor/Committee Member

Bruce Myers

Advisor/Committee Member

Michael Riordan


RIT – Main Campus

Plan Codes