“Fake news” has become a catchphrase slapped on all media, but members of a recent panel discussing photojournalism and the dangers of manipulated or misrepresented images felt the phrase trivializes what is really happening.
“I think the term itself has become so weaponized,” said Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and former public editor for The New York Times. Many people are labeling “fake news” as any information that conflicts with their beliefs. Instead, Sullivan says a critical problem is misleading articles.
“At its heart, fake news is something that is false but presents itself as looking like legitimate news coverage,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan was on the panel in June that Mickey Osterreicher, legal counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, organized and moderated. The National Press Club in Washington, D.C., hosted the event with financial support from the Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Joining Sullivan on the panel were Santiago Lyon, former director of photography for The Associated Press, Samaruddin “Sam” Stewart, a media technologist specializing in verification tools; and Bill Anderson, director of news content and operations for Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Photography manipulation is as old as the medium itself. For photojournalism, adding or removing content had always been unethical, and heavy-handed burning or dodging in the darkroom was even an issue. The difference today is that digital tools allow easy, extensive and seamless manipulations. Digital platforms also allow the altered images to quickly spread to an audience of millions.
The online fact-checking site snopes.com has a category for “fauxtography,” a title Osterreicher likes for the problem of photographs that are manipulated or, just as often, misrepresented out of context.
The increasing stream of misleading images is not coming from traditional journalism outlets as much as from the general public, sometimes called user-generated content (UGC). In the past, nearly all news photos in print and virtually all footage on broadcast news were created by professionals, Now, more and more images are coming from unverified sources.
It’s easy to unknowingly be drawn to an interesting image that is false. Sullivan admitted that she had unwittingly shared an out-of-context image, as most of us have. Something that catches your eye is often reason enough to share.
The clearest way to verify an image is to find the original source. The path isn’t always easy, and it can take time. Virtually instant distribution on the internet creates a time crunch, everyone on the panel acknowledged. Lyon said that, while he was at AP, members often called, anxious to know when the wire service would distribute a viral photo from an unknown source. The verification process can take hours, and in the online news environment, that could result in lost web traffic.
Media verification expert Stewart said that even with proper vetting, the audience often either doesn’t know how or even care to do its own verifications.
“We are seeing actual images being misrepresented to kind of fit a situation. This is something that is just as disturbing,” Stewart said. “They don’t actually have a concern that it’s not real.”
Less obvious, but just as worrisome to the panel, is a shift toward restricting access. Though Donald Trump’s administration is in the spotlight, the tightening began with Barack Obama’s White House. Photographer access was slowly reduced, but in return, the media office offered high-quality photos from its staff, most often made by Pete Souza, the President’s photographer. Though that collection of photos is seen by many as the most engaging documentation of the White House in recent history, Lyon said the photos were also often presented in a “rosy light” to show that all was well in White House.
This kind of handout could be called propaganda, and Lyon said that term carries a lot of “baggage” associated with despots or something sinister. The reality is more subtle, he said.
“‘Propaganda’ really only means something that is released to propagate an idea,” Lyon said.
“Every time independent access is restricted, what you end up seeing is propaganda.”
The Trump administration has tightened access even further. After this panel met, the White House moved to ban cameras at some on-the-record news briefings. Trump and his staff also regularly use the “fake news” label to attack journalists and to delegitimize the media.
The Trump White House also did not allow photographers into meetings with foreign leaders, but the visitors brought their own staff, resulting in photos from the Japanese and Russian governments being the only visual documentation of these meetings. Obama’s administration did the same thing at times.
Lyon points out that, curiously, the Trump White House in some ways offers more access because of the number of photos it releases taken by staffers with cell phones. While Lyon feels those photos are, “for the most part, not very interesting or very good,” they also are not carefully crafted to the administration’s message, as with the Obama administration. The accidental documentation could be more authentic.
Anderson said broadcast newsrooms in the Sinclair Media Group are seeing this attitude of government restriction spreading to local markets as well. The justification borrowed from the White House rhetoric is, “I’m not going to let the media in because they are going to distort the story,” Sullivan said.
“I think we’re getting less and less access and more and more spin,” Sullivan said.
If government entities are shutting out photographers, how should editors handle the handout photos and video that are the only visual record?
Lyon said the AP would operate under the guideline that if there was a reasonable expectation of press access but it was refused, AP would not distribute the handout material. This did create economic pressure when AP subscribers asked for photos despite the access restrictions. All members of the panel agreed that if a handout were to be used, the credit, caption or narration should be clear about who provided the images.
Since fewer organizations send photojournalists to these kinds of government assignments, fewer voices ask for access, and it makes it easier for a press secretary to say no to that smaller group.
“I worry about that slippery slope in the reduced access,” Stewart said. “Will that then empower some of these administrations to do even more increased handouts?”
He also noted that, although fewer photographers are covering government, an increased number of online outlets creates a competitive environment in which they all want images, regardless of the creator. Newsworthiness can also drive the decision to use a handout. In either case, Sullivan said it would be best practice to identify clearly in the captions that the photo was made and edited by a government agency.
With these problems facing photojournalism, Osterreicher asked, how do professional journalists, whom the public holds in contempt, address decreased access or the spread of fake images without sounding like a “petulant child”?
First, be diligent in identifying the source. Stewart points to tools such as Google Earth Pro for verifying locations and reverse image searches such as TinEye and Google Image search. The best situation is to find the original poster, talk with that person and, if possible, get a copy of the original file.
“Sourcing information is so important. In same way that if you hear a rumor at the water cooler, you’re going to ask: ‘Well, who said that? Where did that come from?’” Lyon said. From there, “you’ll determine whether it’s credible or not.”
Stewart also emphasized taking the time to carefully examine a photo: “There’s lots of things you can do just by the look of the image.”
Next, be careful not to be rushed. The speed of social media sharing amplifies the pressure to post too quickly. Anderson said that, in his experience with Sinclair newsrooms, most errors trace back to when they went too fast.
“It is better to be right and be second than to be first and be wrong,” Anderson said.
Educating the public is another key, working toward well-informed media and well-informed readership. As a constant flow of images are consumed on small screens that don’t allow for a lot of detail, people tend to swipe through images without much thought.
“If there is not a demand from the public for authentic news, it won’t happen unless the public is on our side,” Sullivan said.
Newsroom training is also essential, including defending the value of professional photojournalism.
“There is a devaluing of the role of photojournalists as journalists, and I think that anything we can do to combat that internally in newsrooms is going to help,” Sullivan said.
Even with these best practices and sophisticated digital tools, manipulated or misrepresented images will get through.
“There is nothing that I know of that’s out there that will tell you definitely whether it’s true or whether it’s fake,” Stewart said.
In those cases when an image that is not a true or accurate depiction of the events portrayed gets through, panelists said the temptation might be to let it slide. But when it happens, it’s best to own the mistake and take responsibility.
You can write Mickey Osterreicher at [email protected] and Alicia Calzada at [email protected]
This article was originally published in the 2017 July-August issue of News Photographer magazine.