Magazine Cover Uses Altered O. J. Simpson Photo Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In 1994, retired football star O. J. Simpson was charged with the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. In its coverage of the story, Time magazine used an altered version of the Los Angeles Police Department booking photograph of Simpson on its cover. The altered photo made Simpson appear “blacker” than in the original photo and caused an uproar amid accusations that Time engaged in editorial manipulation and encouraged racist stereotypes.

Summary of Event

On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson, the former wife of O. J. Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, were found murdered outside her condominium. Simpson was arrested and charged with their murders. On June 17, a Los Angeles Police Department photographer produced a mug shot of Simpson; this photo was released to the media. Both Time and Newsweek magazines used this mug shot on the cover of their respective issues of June 24. Newsweek published the photo in its original form but Time altered the photo in ways that made Simpson appear “blacker” and, therefore, more guilty. [kw]Time Magazine Cover Uses Altered O. J. Simpson Photo (June 24, 1994) [kw]Simpson Photo, Time Magazine Cover Uses Altered O. J. (June 24, 1994) Simpson, O. J. Time magazine;and O. J. Simpson[Simpson] Newsweek magazine;and O. J. Simpson[Simpson] Simpson, O. J. Time magazine;and O. J. Simpson[Simpson] Newsweek magazine;and O. J. Simpson[Simpson] [g]United States;June 24, 1994: Time Magazine Cover Uses Altered O. J. Simpson Photo[02660] [c]Forgery;June 24, 1994: Time Magazine Cover Uses Altered O. J. Simpson Photo[02660] [c]Publishing and journalism;June 24, 1994: Time Magazine Cover Uses Altered O. J. Simpson Photo[02660] [c]Communications and media;June 24, 1994: Time Magazine Cover Uses Altered O. J. Simpson Photo[02660] [c]Racism;June 24, 1994: Time Magazine Cover Uses Altered O. J. Simpson Photo[02660] [c]Ethics;June 24, 1994: Time Magazine Cover Uses Altered O. J. Simpson Photo[02660] [c]Social issues and reform;June 24, 1994: Time Magazine Cover Uses Altered O. J. Simpson Photo[02660] Mahurin, Matt Gaines, James R. Kearney, Nancy

As was reported widely in the media, Matt Mahurin, the freelance artist who worked on the photo for Time, altered the original picture so that Simpson appeared unshaven and with a darker complexion. Also, Mahurin made the mug shot identification number smaller and added the caption “An American Tragedy” to the photo. The alterations might not have been noticed had Time and Newsweek not published the photo on their covers on the same day, which allowed readers to see the two issues side by side and, thereby, compare the photos.

Critics strongly objected to the photo alterations. The controversy was discussed in newspapers, on television, and in the electronic media. Critics argued that Time, in making Simpson appear more black, was perpetuating racist stereotypes that black men are dangerous by nature, and that the magazine manipulated these fears to influence readers perceptions of Simpson’s guilt or innocence prior to trial. Sheila Stainback, vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists National Association of Black Journalists, asked, rhetorically, “Why did [Simpson] have to be darker? I think that it plays into the whole menacing black-male portrayal.”

Nancy Kearney, a spokesperson for Time, responded to the criticism by denying that Time intended to manipulate or mislead readers. She added that it was insulting to the magazine and to the artist to cast the photo as sinister or racist and that the artist’s intent was to create a “visually compelling” image for the magazine’s cover.

As the outcry continued and amid charges of poor editorial judgment, Time magazine’s managing editor, James R. Gaines, was forced to respond to critics. First, he posted a message on a computer bulletin board stating that “no racial implication was intended, by Time or by the artist.” Ultimately, in a letter in the July 4 issue of Time, Gaines apologized to readers who were offended by the altered Simpson cover and reiterated that it was not his or the artist’s intent to offend readers or to influence their perceptions of Simpson’s guilt or innocence. In the published apology, he reiterated that there were “no racial implications” in the reworking of the photo but that Time should have been more sensitive to the racial issues implied by the cover.

Impact

The controversy did not end with the public apologies. The issue of the negative portrayal of ethnic and racial minorities, as well as women, by the media continues as a topic in academic and political circles. For example, Greg Dickinson and Karrin Vasby Anderson (2004) compared the altered Time cover photo of Simpson with an altered photo of Hillary Rodham Clinton that the magazine used during its coverage of the Time magazine;and Whitewater investigation[Whitewater investigation] Whitewater controversy during the early 1990’s.

The Time cover scandal also revealed the ethical dilemmas of altering photographs that are part of the documentary record. Indeed, Simpson’s celebrity, along with the racial dimensions of the scandal, added public interest to the problem of photo manipulation, and it is true that photographs have been altered since the beginning of photography during the early nineteenth century. One of the more infamous cases of photo manipulation was Joseph Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;and picture forgery[picture forgery] Stalin’s “disappearing” of people from official photos. This practice is well documented in a 1997 book by David King. However, what is different now is the digital retouching of images—also called “photoshopping” in reference to the popular software editing program Adobe Photoshop. The alteration of Simpson’s photo was a mere precursor to what was soon to come.

The Time photo scandal prompted early calls for new rules and frameworks to guide editors deciding on whether a photo or other image should be altered or enhanced. John Long, as ethics cochairman and past president of the National Press Photographers Association National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) in the United States, created the resource “Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography” in 1999. In this ethical guide for journalists, he uses as an example the 1994 Time cover of Simpson. Long and, by association the NPPA, takes the position that all photo manipulation is lying if it changes the content of a photo; that is, if it transforms a photo from a document or direct account of reality into an editorial statement. The NPPA’s position is that this kind of manipulation undermines the credibility of the press. The Time magazine cover of Simpson continues to stand as one of the most significant and negative examples of editorialized photo manipulation. Simpson, O. J. Time magazine;and O. J. Simpson[Simpson] Newsweek magazine;and O. J. Simpson[Simpson]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barak, Gregg, ed. Media, Criminal Justice, and Mass Culture. Monsey, N.Y.: Criminal Justice Press, 1999. Nineteen essays that explore the O. J. Simpson murder trial and its verdict. Focuses on media representations of crime and justice in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickinson, Greg, and Karrin Vasby Anderson. “Fallen: O. J. Simpson, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the Re-centering of White Patriarchy.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 1, no. 3 (September, 2004): 271-296. Analysis of two Time magazine cover images: Simpson after his arrest for murder and Clinton during the Whitewater controversy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hawkins, Billy. “The Dominant Images of Black Men in America: The Representation of O. J. Simpson.” In African Americans in Sport: Contemporary Themes, edited by Gary A. Sailes. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1998. Analyzes negative images of black men, including Simpson, that predominate in the American mass media.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, David. The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997. Chronicles the removal of political undesirables from the photo record in Stalin’s Soviet Union by juxtaposing the original and altered photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morrison, Toni, and Claudia Brodsky Lacour, eds. Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997. Eleven articles that focus on the significance of the O. J. Simpson case as a media spectacle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reaves, Sheila. “The Unintended Effects of New Technology (And Why We Can Expect More).” News Photographer 50, no. 7 (1995): 11-24. Argues that new digital technologies and an increasing focus on pseudo-events and celebrity news encourage more photo manipulation. Encourages editors to guard against the unintended affects of photo alteration.

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