Sunday, August 21, 2011

Journalistic Misuse of Photography: Example


The above picture appears at the head of Ezra Klein's article "Getting ready for a wave of coal-plant shutdowns".

I want to take issue with what I think is a misleading use of photography in a journalistic setting. First, my qualifications: I am a competent amateur photographer, I live near two clean-coal plants, and have toured one of them as a volunteer firefighter.

This picture is tied to comments about coal-fired power plants being idled and remaining coal-fired power becoming more expensive as a result of new EPA regulations. The picture appears at first to be of a dirty smoke pouring out of the stack. This simply is not true. The stack in question is a water-spray column through which smoke is directed *after* it has gone through a first-stage ash filter. (The ash is often consumed by landfills and concrete manufacturers.) The cloud emerging from the stack is in fact nothing more than steam. (There are invisible gases emerging as well, such as Carbon Dioxide.)

The photographer has imaged the cloud with the sun behind it. Then using exposure bracketing, he has formed a High Dynamic Range photo, which enhances the shadowed areas without blowing out the bright areas. This leads to simple white steam appearing dark and fringed by white.

In the winter, this steam lingers along the wind for thousands of feet before finally behind cooled and absorbed into the air. In summer, the steam is rarely visible more than a few hundred feet, except when high humidity in the air--such as during a heavy rain storm--prevents rapid absorption of the humidity.

In short, the photograph displayed is completely misused for the article to which it is applied. It is a lapse of editorial integrity to combine the two.

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