Consider three images from the last couple of weeks:

1. President Barack Obama finishes his address announcing the killing of Osama Bin Laden and walks away from the cameras. After a brief break, he walks back down the same carpet and begins re-reading lines from the speech so that five photojournalists can snap shots of him. When distributing the images, many news organizations note that the photos of Obama were taken after the actual speech, but people often don’t notice the disclaimer. Yesterday, the White House announces that this practice of re-enactment would no longer take place.

2. In the days immediately after the announcement of the death of bin Laden, newspapers and other news organizations in different parts of the world publish a photo of what they declare is the face of the dead terrorist. It depicts him as blackened, bloodied and disfigured. It’s also a fake.

3. The White House releases an official photo showing President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other key members of the administration and military in the situation room as the raid on Bin Laden’s compound takes place. It’s published the world over, including by two ultra-Orthodox Jewish newspapers in Brooklyn. Except that for religious reasons Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason are Photoshopped out of the image.

Three important, iconic images attached to a big story. The first was staged, the second was faked, and the third was later manipulated to remove key players from history. Taken together, they offer a powerful reminder of the challenges of determining visual authenticity in the age of Photoshop.

“There are two issues: First is the ease with which images can be manipulated; and in addition we’re seeing a sort of a slide into the consumer area where manipulation of images is becoming acceptable,” said Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography, echoing comments he made last month at the MIT Media Lab. “There is this sort of notion that image manipulation is somehow acceptable and I think that has very serious ramifications for the perception of the credibility of photojournalistic imagery, which has to be accurate and complete.”

While talking with Lyon, I realized I manipulate images a few times a week when I apply different filters to my Instagram photos. He also noted that today’s digital cameras often come with build-in features and filters that enhance and manipulate images with the push of a button. As for the capabilities of our home PCs, Microsoft dedicated a recent TV ad to selling the fact that you can swap out the heads of people in order to get the perfect family photo.

Photo manipulation—it’s not just for experts anymore!

Yes, the tools of image fabrication and manipulation are widely available and highly promoted. The skills to use them are easily attainable. If you are a professional designer or photographer or a dedicated amateur, the possibilities are endless, the handiwork increasingly difficult to identify.

But what about the tools and skills for detecting these manipulations before they spread online or are used by news organizations?

AFP and Tungstene

When it came to the fake photo of a dead Bin Laden, Agence France-Presse turned to Tungstene, a piece of software developed by Roger Cozien, a Paris-based criminology and photo analysis expert. (If you can read French, this story offers a detailed analysis of the faked photo. Caution: graphic images.)

Tungstene was described in a press release from AFP this week as “high-technology image interpretation software which combs through the information contained in digital images to detect potential tampering. Using a suite of filters, it can identify tell-tale discrepancies in pixels and analyse harmonisation of light and colour.”

The news agency announced it is using Tungstene to check certain photos for signs of manipulation or enhancement. As for AP, Lyon said they often turn to noted digital forensics expert Dr. Hany Farid when their internal experts require additional testing and analysis. (I contacted Reuters to see what they use, but didn’t receive a reply.)

Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.