Down East: The Magazine of Maine drew criticism Wednesday for making a pretty drive even prettier with the help of photo editing software.
The monthly magazine used the software to remove power lines and a utility pole from a photo for the cover of its September issue, featuring “Maine’s Prettiest Drives.” The cover shows a stretch of Route 24 near Orr’s Island.
The editing caught the attention of a reader and journalist, Doug Warren, who is a part-time resident of Orr’s Island.
Warren contacted the magazine about its too-good-to-be-real photo and slammed it for misrepresenting the scenic drive over the bridge to Orr’s Island. Warren has a journalism background that includes long stints at the Miami Herald, The Boston Globe and the Portland Press Herald.
Down East’s director of photography, Dawna Hilton, told Warren in an email that the magazine occasionally makes Maine a little more photogenic by removing “distractions to make a scene more appealing to a viewer.”
Warren sent his own photograph of the scene – complete with the offending power lines and utility poles – along with Down East’s altered photo and the email exchange he had with Hilton to Jim Romenesko, a media blogger who posted the item Wednesday on his widely read blog, www.jimromenesko.com.
Paul Doiron, Down East’s editor in chief, said the magazine infrequently alters photographs, which he said is standard in the industry.
“We live in an era of digital photography,” Doiron said Wednesday. “The cover is something meant to catch the eye. We’re trying to create an image that will attract attention. We try to be as minimal and conservative with changes as possible.”
When asked how often Down East alters photos for the cover or inside the magazine, Doiron said, “I couldn’t tell you how often we do or don’t do it.”
Any reader would be hard-pressed to find a magazine that doesn’t enhance photographs, he said.
“We don’t think what we’re doing is outside the mainstream of magazine journalism,” Doiron said. “Quite frankly, I’m surprised it’s news. That’s what we do. If you talk to all magazines, you’ll hear the same thing.”
Portland magazine and Maine magazine did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
Kelly McBride, an expert on media ethics at the Poynter Institute in Florida, said any publication that purports to offer journalism should not alter a photograph.
“It depends on if they consider themselves to be journalists. If you call what you do ‘news,’ you would not alter a photograph unless there was a very clear label that it was a photo illustration. A news photograph is meant to represent the truth,” McBride said.
Two famous examples of magazines altering photographs drew broad criticism, McBride said. In one case, National Geographic moved the pyramids in Egypt so they fit better on the page. In another, Time magazine darkened O.J. Simpson’s face.
“Nobody defended them,” McBride said. “You cannot let your aesthetic get in the way of representing what you’re presenting as truth.”
Warren said he thinks that Down East, whose September issue hit newsstands late last month, should include a note to readers to make it clear that it is presenting the cover as a “photo illustration,” rather than a photograph.
“Altering images is a very slippery slope,” Warren said. “They should write a clarification or a correction.”
Warren said he sent the photo and the magazine cover to Romenesko because he thought the response from Hilton, the director of photography, was condescending “and full of baloney.”
He asked the magazine to consider running his emailed letter to Hilton and his real photo as a letter to the editor, or putting it on the Down East website so readers can see the difference between the images. The magazine is considering it, Warren said.
He said he was further mystified to see that the drive to Orr’s Island wasn’t even chosen by Down East as one of the five prettiest drives in Maine.
“I don’t know why they went to all the trouble to change the photo if it’s not even part of the article,” he said. “If it’s so pretty, why not mention it?”
Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: