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The Great VegNews Photo "Controversy" ~ Bruce Friedrich

The most recent example of that old adage "with friends like this, who needs enemies" has come in the form of what I would have called a silly controversy, except that the controversy has had a measurable negative impact.

You may have heard about a "scandal" that rocked the vegan community this past week when an anonymous blogger reported that VegNews Magazine was using stock photos with actual meat to represent some of its vegan recipes. The story spread across the Internet and social media sites like a California wildfire, with the vitriol rising to absurd levels. The fine folks behind VegNews, who have always been highly regarded in veg circles (with good reason; theirs is a labor of love), were blindsided.

The vegan movement has made great strides forward in recent years, with wonderful books by Rory Freedman, Kathy Freston, Tal Ronnen, Alicia Silverstone, and currently Wayne Pacelle all hitting the New York Times bestseller list. In just the last few months Oprah, Ellen DeGeneres, and Martha Stewart have all devoted episodes of their shows to veganism, and it seems every week the mainstream media reports on someone who has become vegan or is flirting with it, from President Bill Clinton to business mogul Steve Wynn to sports stars like Prince Fielder to, in the "most unlikely vegan" category, Mike Tyson.

While the rants continued, many rational and seasoned minds came to VegNews' defense, including Ecorazzi Senior Editor Michael Parrish Dudell who blogged, "the mass hysteria that has occurred throughout the vegetarian community ... is nothing but flagrantly obscene." Matt Ball, co-founder of Vegan Outreach, also put the matter of priorities into perspective in his blog.

Unlike the blogger, I contacted VegNews publisher Joseph Connelly after hearing him interviewed on NPR's "All Things Considered" and reading about what I had previously assumed was a small and silly online kerfuffle in the New York Times.


Here's what he told me:

"Everyone at VegNews is in shock over what transpired. A very small number of photos somehow morphed into a much larger issue. What hurt most, I think, is that we were never contacted about this except for one anonymous exchange on our website that appeared to be from a troll and was therefore deleted, as is our policy. The blogger did not call or email, did not attempt to contact us in any way, did not seriously attempt to get both sides of the story."

Connelly's reflection raises a few issues for me:


1) Where is the integrity in attacking VegNews without getting their side of the story?

2) Why (on earth) would we waste precious time and resources publicly attacking VegNews at all; haven't they earned the benefit of quite a few doubts with their nonstop excellent focus on the full range of arguments for veganism?

3) If we do think they've done something wrong, why not contact them privately?


Most critically: Veganism is supposed to be about reducing suffering. How does attackingVegNews accomplish anything good? I can see how it harms animals (clearly), but what other than self-righteous self-satisfaction comes from attacking them?

VegNews has thrived as an independent magazine during a down economy and while masses of people migrate toward electronic media. The magazine has won numerous industry awards, and has given veganism both mainstream exposure and legitimacy like no other magazine in history. It operates in an industry that spends tens of thousands of dollars on photo shoots, where the use of stock photography is a common practice, and where the quality of images required for print is nearly impossible for the average individual to understand. It competes on the newsstand against thousands of other magazine titles, yet is the singular mainstream voice for a vegan lifestyle--and an incredibly effective one.

VegNews apologized in this letter, which was posted on its website a few days after the news broke, yet the nastiness continued (hell hath no fury like a vegan scorned, apparently), multiplying the negative effect of what was already misplaced wrath.

And in the "truth is stranger than fiction" department, it turned out that the photograph of a burger that the blogger claimed to be meat and used to open the exposé, from this article"Vegan 101," is actually a vegan pattie.

The staff and publishers of VegNews have shown class and integrity throughout this whole absurd affair, even though, according to Connelly, "Nearly everything else that has been said, such as that we censor legitimate comments, or that we had staff dissension over the use of symbolic images, is simply not true. Still, our readers have spoken, we've apologized, and have changed our photo policy moving forward."

To not support VegNews is counter-productive if you care about animal suffering. It's time to put this issue behind us and focus on areas where animals are suffering.

And if you didn't previous subscribe to VegNews, show them some love by visiting their Web siteand signing up. If you already subscribe, buy a friend a gift subscription.



Re-published with the kind permission of Bruce Friedrich from The Huffington Post



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Comment by Tim Gier on April 24, 2011 at 0:50
Certainly the issues raised about journalistic integrity, indirect harm towards other animals, public perception of vegans and vegan food, and so on are all important and not to be dismissed. I understand that informed people of goodwill have strong feelings about all this. However, to me this is a question of priorities and proportionality and, in those terms and in light of the scope and enormity of the problems of domination, subjugation and exploitation, I just don't see this as a big deal at all.
Comment by Lisa V on April 23, 2011 at 9:33

I appreciate the apology, I really do. But it will take seeing the "new, improved, actually vegan VegNews," and seeing that they remain true to a vegan ideal over time.


Here's the way I look at it ... it's not just a matter of vegan ethics, it's a matter of basic trust. In court, when someone lies once, it's assumed they will lie again and can no longer be trusted. And any of us, when lied to once, will assume the one who lied may do it again. It takes a long time to rebuild trust. I'm even willing to entertain the possibility of trusting VegNews again. But it has to be based on a history of changed behavior, not just on a promise to do so.

Comment by Tim Marshall on April 23, 2011 at 7:37
Cheers Kate, that is great, that is a proper solution, Nice work Vegnews, finally  !
Comment by Kate✯GO VEGAN+NOBODY GETS HURT Ⓥ on April 23, 2011 at 4:56
Comment by Tim Marshall on April 22, 2011 at 9:35

Hey guys, I disagree a bit Tim & Bruce .

The impact of the stock photos is small but still one of directly contributing to animal use, the more people who buy photos of animal based dishes, the more photo shoots will be set up to create new animal based stock photos, buying a vegan dish photo has a neutral at worst or perhaps even a beneficial effect.

The proportion of their photos that have been identified as meat /animal based is quite high considering that to be able to make a positive confirmation a person has so scour thousands of photos or stumble across one in a million stock photos , have vegnews given any kind of confirmation/confession of what portion of their photos are actually of meat ,cheese and eggs etc?

In terms of public perception, this is like pulling the rug out,what owner of a vegnews issue or regular subscriber hasn't showed off the photos and recipes to a practicing omnivore? This makes a mockery of that and implies that yes, claims about vegan food being unappealing are very correct, the most glamourous vegan magazine in the world can't even make vegan food look appealing enough for a photograph!


Yes vegnews had been contacted, check the comments sections of the quarrygirl article,it is claimed by a former employee that her employment ceased because she pushed the issue , others had no reply or were told they were being rude/negative/divisive and then there is the issue of vegnews deleting comments.

Bruce , we aren't vegans scorned we are vegans aware of how delicate our grace in public perception is and we don't take kindly to a magazine supposedly catering specifically to us patronising us by saying in effect "Your food may even look half as great as this photo of a sandwiched corpse we bought."

There were several times as this unfolded that Vegnews could have saved face and set things right,they deleted comments, ignored emails and then gave a non apology.

Buy a decent camera and a copy of photoshop or just give the recipes to a bunch of bloggers who subscribe to a paid Vegnews Forum, do this three weeks before each magazine and use the best photo with credit to the blogger/blog. There are many ways around this and they don't all involve outlaying more money. 

There are far too many aesthetically pleasing, non profit vegan food blogs out there for me to number - thats perhaps why the most common response has been anger /disgust at this deception by vegnews, net savvy vegans chronicle their food from day to day while still maintaining other jobs/looking after kids, meanwhile "VEG"news  is collecting subscriptions (even here in Australia I know several subscribers), making money from advertisements on every other page and not bothering to test their own recipes. This IS a slap in the face. I hope they provide an honest publication in future.  

Comment by Carolyn Bailey on April 22, 2011 at 8:19

I couldn't agree with you more, Lisa. 

I believe the message VegNews has sent is one of vegan food being unattractive and unappealing, which I find offensive. There are countless vegan bloggers out there (as you know) who would have been more than happy to have tested these recipes and photographed them for VegNews, all free of charge. The issue of money is a non-issue as an excuse from VegNews. 

VegNews were wrong to have allowed this to happen over such a long period, they were arrogant and dishonest. 

That said though, I think this is a very sad situation, and I do hope VegNews recovers and learns from this and continues to produce an excellent vegan magazine, with real photos of real vegan food!


Comment by Lisa V on April 22, 2011 at 8:07
I'm going to disagree with you on this one, Bruce (and looks like I;m disagreeing with Tim, too!). The VegNews incidence brings up more than just a profound disregard for vegan values, but reflects a disturbing disregard for journalistic integrity, as well.

VegNews used photos of meat to illustrate recipes ... and did that not just once, but many times over the last two years, at least. Not only did they contribute to animal suffering by *purchasin­g* the meat photos (these were purchased from istock, they weren't free), they misreprese­nted the recipes to their readers. They implied they had tested the recipe and photograph­ed the results. Many readers said they tried their recipes and had the dish turn out completely differentl­y - even a different color. That's well below the standards of an unpaid blogger. For the most successful vegan publicatio­n to do that is inexcusabl­e.

I know it's relatively simple to make a recipe and photograph it, sometimes well enough for publicatio­n (http://www­.rawon10.b­­m) VegNews chose, instead, to mislead their readers in every way possible. And it appears they did it out of sheer laziness.
Comment by Tim Gier on April 22, 2011 at 7:37

What Bruce Friedrich obviously doesn't understand is the actual harm done to nonhuman animals because this magazine used computer technology to digitally alter already existing stock photographs which other people had taken. Oh, wait a minute. There can be no harm done to nonhuman animals as a result of anyone digitally altering stock photographs that someone somewhere else has already taken. 

There are controversies worth getting all hot and bothered about, but this one, just like the idiocy surrounding the faux scandal of the Vegan Society's advertisement of a non-vegan restaurant, is too ridiculous to spend more than a second on. Lest we forget, every second of every minute of every hour of every day, more than 1700 land animals and untold sea creatures meet their deaths. Pictures in a magazine? Get serious.


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