Using Adobe Photoshop and Ethics in the Digital Age

Contributor: Stefani Allegretti. Lesson ID: 13093

Living in the information age, we have the ability to access and create information faster than we ever have before. But this amazing ability also comes with more responsibility.


Practical Life Skills, Software and Applications

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!


In the 21st century, we can use computer applications to create films, artwork, animations, photography, blogs, websites, music, and so much more! And we can publish our own creations for millions to see with the click of a button. The ability to convey information and express ourselves in so many ways is a privilege that also comes with great responsibility.

In this lesson, you are going to learn about ethics in the digital age, specifically when using photo-manipulation tools and creation applications such as Adobe Photoshop.

Let's first review what ethics are.

Ethics are a system of moral principles. The root word of the word ethics is "ethos," which means character. That makes sense, right? If someone is ethical, they have good character. They have morals or rules that guide their behavior. Someone who is ethical is likely to be honest and fair, and treat people in a way that they would like to be treated.

  • So, how in the world do ethics apply to manipulating or digitally altering a photograph?

Actually, ethics apply to all aspects of our society including the creation, use, and publication of photographs.

Computer application programs like Adobe Photoshop give us the ability to create and manipulate photographs to the point that newly imagined worlds, environments, and even mythical creations can be created. That is really great for creative, artistic purposes! Artists like Salvador Dali, a surrealist, probably would have loved using Adobe Photoshop for this reason. Below is one of Dali's surrealist paintings from 1931:

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Image by Mike Steele, via Flickr, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

However, the issue of ethics comes into play when individuals create photographs of people, environments, and moments in time that are imagined, altered, or did not actually happen in reality but are presented as truth -- as if they actually happened in real life.

tiger parakeet

Image by Sarah Richter, via Pixabay, is in the public domain.

For example, let's imagine that a journalist who works for a local newspaper writes a story about a new breed of parakeet that can be purchased at pet shops nearby. The journalist creates the photo above to add next to his article and adds a caption that reads, "New breed of parakeet available at local pet shops." In this example, the journalist is acting in an unethical way.

  • Why?

Because he used photo-manipulation tools to create an image that suggests this is actually a new breed of parakeet that is available at local pet shops, when obviously there is no parakeet in existence that is part tiger and part bird.

Let's examine another scenario.

A school newspaper wants to highlight the dangers of driving and texting. So, the editor takes a photo of a random student who is driving in the school parking lot and puts a phone in the driver's hand using photo-manipulation tools such as cloning, cropping, and layering. Now, it looks like the student is actually texting and driving. The editor of the newspaper publishes the photo in the school newspaper, and everyone who sees it thinks that the student was texting and driving in the school parking lot.

This is an example of using a photo-editing application in a way that is highly unethical because it is misrepresenting the truth and reality by portraying another person in a negative light, and it is misrepresenting the actions of someone who was not actually texting and driving. Not to mention, taking a photo of someone and publishing it without their permission! Yikes!

Watch What happens when Photoshop goes too far?, a PBS NewsHour report by Saskia De Melker, to learn more about the unethical ways journalists have used photo-editing applications.

As you saw, there are many instances in our history that show photojournalists forgetting about ethics altogether when it comes to creating photographs and using photo-editing applications. That's why it is so important to understand what is ethical and what isn't in the digital age.

Great work in the Get It! section. Ready to move on to the Got It? section? Let's go!

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