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Published February 06 2013

Benshoof: Forum sign gets blank look on local TV newscast

FARGO - Call it the curious case of the retouched photo. An eagle-eyed Forum employee recently noticed something strange about a background photo used during weather segments of KVLY-TV/KXJB-TV Valley News Live.

In the image depicting downtown Fargo, the white sign atop The Forum’s five-story building appears blank.

This is odd, because The Forum’s sign – a 60-foot beacon that’s been a landmark in Fargo for nearly 90 years – has black letters on all sides spelling out the newspaper’s name. F-O-R-U-M. All five of them. At night, they light up.

Yet in the image used by Valley News Live, there is a fuzzy, letter-free rectangle jutting into the sky above the newspaper’s building.

The Forum and Valley News Live are competitors in the local news market. As such, one suspicion in our newsroom was someone intentionally altered the image to avoid a visual reference to the “evil empire” across town.

Malicious intent or not, on Wednesday I was tasked with solving the case.

It’s hardly Woodward and Bernstein investigating Watergate. However, when it comes to news organizations adjusting what’s in a photo – if that’s what happened – that’s generally frowned upon.

According to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists: “Never distort the content of news photos or video.” The guidelines don’t say if the same rule should apply to weather backdrops.

My sleuthing started with News Director Ike Walker. He wasn’t too interested in helping me crack the case.

“I don’t talk to The Forum. I have no desire to talk to The Forum,” he told me. “Nothing against you personally, but I think you’re not going to get anything out of me.”

Undaunted, I reached Jim Wareham, the KVLY/KXJB station head. Wareham indulged my questions but didn’t know anything about it. He suggested I talk to the people who use the image – the weather guys.

I called Valley Today Meteorologist Mick Kjar, who pointed me to Chief Meteorologist Hutch Johnson.

“I’m not in charge here; I just keep my head down and pull the plow,” he said, very morning weather Kjar-esque.

In the afternoon, I got through to Johnson, who unfortunately didn’t know anything about the image being retouched.

“I don’t know if or why it would have been done,” Johnson told me. “If that was done, it was put in our computer that way.”

Johnson said the image has been used since last summer. So he figured it was taken sometime before then, but that’s all he knew.

The sign was removed for a few months from Dec. 19, 2011, until March 29, 2012. But the whole sign came down, not just the letters.

I took one last shot in the dark and called Operations Manager Sean Kelly. He was nice enough to speak to me in the middle of the 6 p.m. newscast, but only to decline comment.

Now my trail had really run dry, and I had more pressing – and journalistic – work to do.

So despite my best efforts, the curious case of the retouched photo remains a mystery.

For now.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535

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