On a Plain

People say I have an accent that can make me hard to understand. I know that I speak plainly. They are just distracted by my southern charm and wit. I have also been accused of writing the way I speak. I do my best to keep contractions that make Paul cringe out of my writin’.  For those who work for the federal government, speaking or writing plainly is now a mandate signed by President Obama. On October 13, 2010, he signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The deadline for implementing portions of the law is fast approaching (July 2011).

When you look through the guidelines provided by the the Plain Language Action and Information Network (or PLAIN, which is not nearly as clever as IBD) you can see many common threads between the recommendations and interpretive writing. (Aside #1: I find it interesting that it took 112 pages for the federal government to outline how to write plainly.) (Aside #2: I also find it interesting that they recommend that you avoid the use of parenthesis in communication.) With topics like “Think about your audience, and organize” you can see the power of using interpretive techniques to improve communication.

There’s a section or two about grammar, nouns, verbs, and all that stuff that Paul loves to write about that I don’t really get but it must be important in some way to writing but I’m sure Paul will get around to writing a post about sometime between now and the next three years. (I wonder if Paul can resist editing this sentence?) I did read the first sentence of that section, which I liked: “Words matter. They are the most basic building blocks of written and spoken communication. Choose your words carefully – be precise and concise.”

The section on writing for the web makes some interesting points that Paul and I have ignored on this blog. This image from the website shows how the human eye tracks on websites. The area shown in red is where the viewer spent the majority of their time.

If we had room in the budget (or any budget at all) and had the exact same study done on IBD, it would be expected that posts such as Monday’s Pick a side: Do you indent the first line of your first paragraph? written by Paul Caputo would yield the following results (keep in mind the area shown in red is where the visitor spent the majority of their time).

Take some time and brush up on your plain writing skills. You may find validity in some of your tried and true interpretive writing techniques.

Presidential Photoshop Ethics, Part 2 (Vice Presidential Version)

Much like President Obama, there are many pictures of me out there that I wish people didn’t have. It is the price that the most powerful person in the world (President Obama, not me) must pay and it is the price that many lonely lame people must pay (definitely me).

A few weeks ago, I became a victim of being Photoshopped (not by Paul, this time). I had to have a head shot taken for my role as vice president  of the Cross County Chamber of Commerce (even though I only hold the postion of vice president, I carry many of the same burdens of the president—of the chamber, that is, not the United States) to be placed on the chamber’s website (www.CrossCountyChamber.com). Like most people who have to get a head shot, I was not overly excited about it.

The morning of the head shot I was wrestling around with my 22-month-old son William. Using a great professional wrestling technique, he scratched my face just under my right eye. (Note to self: a 22-month-old is too young to be watching World Wrestling Entertainment: Smackdown.) I had made the appointment with the photographer and I wasn’t going to let a little scratch change my plans—especially on a thumbnail photo, since no one would notice it anyway.

Later that afternoon the photographer emailed me a copy of the photo. As I opened it, my initial reaction was that the lighting was really good—so good that the scratch applied by William “The Chunk” Lewis wasn’t even noticeable. In fact, it was gone. That is when I started noticing several other changes.

I pulled the image up in Photoshop and soon made note of the following: My raccoon tan from my sunglasses was gone, circles under my eyes gone, gray hair gone, a small scar from childhood gone, and wrinkles on my forehead and around my eyes gone. My teeth were extra white and my eyes were extra bright. Much to my dismay the two things I would choose to change in real life, my double chin and my receding hairline, were both still there.

Does the picture make me look better? Most definitely. Does anyone care? Not really. I think if I knew that it was going to be doctored I would have felt better about it. Does the image effectively portray me? Possibly. Did the changes make so much of a difference that anyone besides me and my scratched head would have noticed? Hopefully not.

sheaShould have I shared this image and pointed out all of the improvements with my co-workers and the readers of IBD? No way.

So here’s the image…if there’s anything that I have learned through this experience it is that I can relate to President Obama in one way and I will think twice about fixing images in my work. Let the comments flow.

Presidential Photoshop Ethics

bildeOne of my biggest fears each summer as I lounge on the beaches of the Jersey shore, marine-mammal style after a sixth consecutive meal of boardwalk fries, cheesesteaks, and ice cream, is that I’m going to end up on the cover of some magazine. Never, though, have I worried that some unscrupulous Photoshop user was going to change the color of my bathing suit.

This is exactly what happened to President Obama, whose black bathing suit was digitally altered to appear red on a recent cover of Washingtonian magazine.

In an article on CNN.com, media critic Howard Kurtz said, “While the alterations of this picture might seem to some people to be kind of minor, it is absolutely unethical. It is dishonest. It is not journalism. You cannot present a news photo, particularly of a president, but of anybody, and alter it through digital technology without being honest about it with readers.”

On the other hand, Washingtonian publisher Cathy Merrill Williams said, “When you’re in the magazine business you’re trying to get across a concept or an idea. Changing…the color of his shorts didn’t change the overall image portrayed.  It was President Obama in a bathing suit walking.”

In an article in the Mansfield News Journal, the magazine’s lifestyle editor Leslie Milk said, “I know we changed the color of his (bathing) suit to red, and dropped out the background.” (Leslie is all about the facts.)

I think that one of these changes (dropping out the background) is legitimate, while the other (changing the bathing suit) is dishonest.

Years ago, I worked at a really terrible job for a really terrible person who asked me to alter in Photoshop images that ended up printed in magazines. I removed my boss’s double chin from one photo, removed a person whom said boss disliked from another, and made a cloudy day sunny in yet another, to name a few changes. These alterations were largely harmless, but they were dishonest.

I used to bathe for hours after work and still felt dirty.

To be sure, once a photo is taken, it is already an abstraction of reality, interpreted through a camera and presented on paper or screen. Photos that are manipulated in any way become further abstractions (for instance, black-and-white photos are further removed from the reality they represent than color images). So I have no problem with images that have been corrected for quality.

In ethical terms, I have always felt that Photoshop should be used to adjust or correct photos (adjusting lighting, removing dust, etc.), to create original works of art that do not purport to be photographs, or to make obvious changes (like dropping out a background) that are not intended to deceive.

shea-hatOnce an attempt has been made to deliberately deceive a viewer (for instance, by changing the color of an item of clothing or by making a person think that my old boss was not fat by removing her double chin), an ethical line has been crossed. To demonstrate, I have subtly altered this recent photo of Shea. See if you can guess how.