Saturday, November 20, 2010

NYT Freelancer Sarah Maslin Nir Debuts On Front Page With Phony Trend Story About School Photo Retouching.

It was made to order for a Saturday NYT front page.

Sarah Maslin Nir, the highly visible NYT freelancer who has recently been covering education for the Metro section, delivered a delicious trend story this morning on how kids now get their school photos retouched to remove unsightly scars and imperfections.

Only one problem: it's not a trend at all.

As any photographer -- or former high school student -- can tell you, school photographers have been retouching photos for decades to remove blemishes, scars and other elements that might mar a permanent portrait. It has been standard practice since at least the 1950s, a fact conveniently missing from Nir's story.

Instead, Nir presents this as a new phenomenon, using the standard buzzwords of trend reporting:

The practice of altering photos, long a standard in the world of glossy magazines and fashion shoots, has trickled down to the wholesome domain of the school portrait. Parents who once had only to choose how many wallet-size and 5-by-7 copies they wanted are now being offered options like erasing scars, moles, acne and braces, whitening teeth or turning a bad hair day into a good one.

School photography companies around the country have begun to offer the service on a widespread basis over the past half-dozen years, in response to parents’ requests and to developments in technology that made fixing the haircut a 5-year-old gave herself, or popping a tooth into a jack-o’-lantern smile, easy and inexpensive. And every year, the companies say, the number of requests grows.

But if you need any proof that this phenomenon has been around a while, just take a look at the 179 comments on the piece on the NYT website -- 32 of which specifically recall their own photos being retouched as long ago as the 1950s, and remark that the story reports nothing new at all.

Here's a typical comment, from Norman Baxley of Urbana, Illinois:

It was common practice in early portrait photography to retouch negatives, particularly 4X5" and larger. It was done by applying graphite directly to the surface of the negative. Since dark bags under the eyes and zits are clear on the negative, filling in these areas with graphite caused them to print lighter....Go back and look at high school yearbooks from the mid sixties and earlier and you won't find many zits in the black and white photos!

Or this, from Barbara Leary of Amesbury, Massachusetts:

I am a high school newspaper and yearbook advisor. In a portrait type photo we would almost always remove temporary deformities such as a scratch, pimple, or stray hair as a matter of course....The person who said photos were retouched 40 years ago is correct. Look at a yearbook from 1950 or 60 and you won't see kids with zits all over their portraits....This is NOT another case of our society becoming more fake. It has always been done.

And there are 30 more, making the same point -- that the notion that this is a new practice is false.

By the way, this isn't even the first time this phony trend has been reported recently -- it had been done in Feburary of 2008 in Newsweek. So even if editors bought Nir's faulty thesis, why did they put it on page one?

It may have something to do with Nir, a rising freelance star at the NYT who began contributing to the paper in 2008. Earlier this year Nir was named "The Nocturnalist," a weekly column for the City Room blog that reports on New York nightlife. More recently, Nir has been writing high-profile education stories for the paper.

Today's feature marked Nir's solo page one NYT debut. Unfortunately for her, it's not going to be so easy to airbrush out this story's flaws.

UPDATE: Late this evening, Nir briefly posted two Twitter comments (at her Twitter feed, @NYTNocturnalist) in response to our post, but then took them down. Fortunately we were able to get a screen grab before they disappeared:


Anonymous said...

it's problematic when such a young reporter writes on "trends" or tries to spot them. how much knowledge do they really have?

wjdecker said...

Try to guess which is the real point of trend reporting: (1) to be accurate and revealing, or (2) to generate page hits (and then move on to the next page-hit-generating glob of text). A story that generates over 150 comments might have reached the desired measure of success after all.

Anonymous said...

trend or non-trend aside, this is just a dull piece on a dull topic.

Anonymous said...

NYTPicker, this is such an unfair commentary, Nir says that DIGITAL photo retouching for elementary school kids is on the rise, and her reporting shows that.

You say "It has been standard practice since at least the 1950s, a fact conveniently missing from Nir's story."

And that's just NOT TRUE: Here, past the jump:
"At the time of its founding in 1946, Irvin Simon Photographers, which took Oliver's photograph, employed artisans who could paint out pimples on negatives with special inks, or even out skin tone with a faint film of paint sprayed onto prints themselves. The services were available by special request. "It was a painstaking process," and expensive, said Steve Miller, a co-president."

I emailed this fact to you, but you did not update with a correction. You say something is not in her article, but THERE IT IS. Are you alone above correction, unlike the paper, and young woman, you so needlessly blast?

Anonymous said...

This is exactly the kind of mean-spirited hit-job that is only possible from behind a veil of anonymity.

The pattern is clear, as well: some snarky reporting about established Times writers, but mostly it seems a sour-grapes tinged continuous rebuke of junior reporters and other competition for NYTPickers' implied greatness.

Unfortunately, the critique is incomplete, the pieces that are posted here reveal that NYTPicker could use some help with postings and the research required of the better posts.

However, with an expanded cabal comes greater risk that what many people already know will begin to form like a melanoma in plain view. Everyone recognizes it for what it is but the person involved.

I love this blog and its dead-enderism.

Patrick said...

You seem like intelligent people. Can't you find something more dignified to do with your time?

Anonymous said...

#4, #5: Thanks Sarah's friends.

Anonymous said...

The topic is valid, schools purifying the depictions of children towards Anna Wintour's ideal of the perfect visage, but why does Maslin approach her story the way a stripper nears a pole?

Anonymous said...

"highly visible" "rising star"... and then you try to smack her down? Sounds like someone has a grade school style widdle crush!

Anonymous said...

The story needs a fixer, but if the author, high off of her fresh meteoric rise, zgottattitude issues, and doesn't take well to correction, then she's better trashed.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most sophmoric and mean-spirited set of posts I have seen, in large part due to genuine lack of reason and necessity for the commentary, in the first place. I mean honestly, why not use your time and energy more productively? These posts are a permanent turn-off from visiting this site. Just silly.

Hershie Warner said...

re: anon @10:16,
let's guess, you can't handle constructive criticism, and need to be hyperstimulated/aroused to sustain denial of your reasoning as to why bad journalism deserves a place on the front page of the most influential source of news on the planet?!

Maslin's article is bogus, and her attitude does her no favors. Remember, if turning on is a metric for acceptable journalism, then Jason Blair would've been the most successful reporter, like ever. Nailing them on and off the page. In fact wasn't that why his superiors held off criticism until the whole affair became undeniably discredited?

HW said...

in fact, isn't that the kind of thinking that allowed Blair to be mishandled and hypnoguided, and wasn't he on the rise while he was titillating his readers with nonsense?

Surely you can run to your editors and look like a crybaby, wear that tight mini and purse those lips, the meanies are out there to get ya. They'll give you the pulitzer, just for showing up dressed like that.

Anonymous said...

The writer didn't put it on A1. Just sayin.

pkon said...

based on the second tweet, I wonder if she had some text about the 50's in there, but it got edited out? but even so, the framing upfront is as if "this is a new thing."