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Photo Bias

BIAS & PHOTO JOURNALISM

Are you getting the full picture from news photographs and video?

A photograph can portray an event in much greater depth than text. Often, the news media uses photographs and video that add detail, context, or insight to an accompanying story. These news photographs and video footage become one of the most important tools that the media uses.

However, just as news photographs and video can significantly help to tell a story, they can also mislead readers and undermine the true facts of an event. Sometimes this is done on purpose, other times it is a result of sloppy editorial work. Regardless of the reason, photo bias is a very dangerous thing, especially where the Middle East is concerned.

1) Staging News Photographs and Video

The worst examples are when news photographs or video are deliberately staged to create a story that never happened. Readers and viewers assume that since they are actually seeing an event, it must have happened the way the photograph shows. Yet, we have uncovered numerous examples of how the photographer creates a story that is simply not true.

One of the most significant cases involving faked footage was from a news story on the Gaza Beach “massacre.” When news stories picked up that seven Palestinians had been killed on a beach in Gaza, Palestinian Television broadcast scenes showing Israeli naval vessels shelling the beach, interspersed with video of the beach victims. The story was picked up around the world based on this footage. The only problem was that the video of the naval ships firing was file footage that was not taking at the time of the beach incident. In other words, the video was faked. A subsequent investigation pointed to a Palestinian mine as the most likely cause of the explosion, not the Israeli Navy. Click here for HonestReporting’s report on this incident and click here to see the Palestinian television footage courtesy of Palestinian Media Watch.

In a New York Times photo essay on July 27, this “dead” civilian is pulled from the rubble. Yet only minutes earlier, the same man is seen scrambling over debris at the scene. The “dead” man is even sweating and holding his hat by his side. The New York Times was subsequently forced to issue a “correction”. The photographer then said that the problem was with the caption. The caption should have read that the man was not killed but rather injured and that the injury occurred not during an Israeli attack, but during rescue operations. Yet even that correction seems weak since the man in the picture appears in numerous media pictures without a scratch.

Another photograph that appears to have been staged was the following of an alleged Israeli attack on a Lebanese ambulance. The picture became the story and was picked up by media outlets around the world. However, after analyzing the photograph, a number of experts have questioned its accuracy. It would be very hard for an Israeli air to ground missile to hit the exact center of the ambulance, where a ventilation hole happens to be, and not cause more internal damage. Yet once the photo was out, people found that accusations that Israel was attacking civilian vehicles were easier to believe. Read the full HonestReporting report here.

Finally, one of the worst examples of staged news has been documented by the website “The Second Draft”. This website uses raw video footage to painstakingly demonstrate how Muhamad Al Dura, the fourteen-year-old boy purportedly killed by Israeli fire, could not in fact have been killed in this way. The website has numerous examples of cameramen directing video shows that are closer to a Hollywood movie than to news documentation. We encourage our readers to go to The Second Draft website and judge for themselves whether the video reports aired globally were accurate or staged.

2) Manipulating News Photographs

Some photographers have used their own animosity against Israel to doctor photographs. Charles Johnson of the Little Green Footballs blog exposed this Reuters photo which “shows blatant evidence of manipulation. Notice the repeating patterns in the smoke; this is almost certainly caused by using the Photoshop “clone” tool to add more smoke to the image.”

Reuters subsequently admitted that the photo had been doctored and fired photographer Adnan Hajj, whose other photos became subject to investigation.

The explanation given by Reuters Senior Editor Paul Holmes was “On Saturday, we published 2,000 photos. It (The Beirut photograph) was handled by someone on a very busy day at a more junior level than we would wish for in ideal circumstances.’’ He said this aspect of the problem was the result of “human error,” not malicious intent. Despite the lack of intent, the damage was already done.

The subsequent investigation showed other photographs that Hajj had faked including one, in which an Israeli fighter jet that had fired a defensive weapon was made to look like it was firing a number of air-to-ground missiles. (Reuters also admitted that this photograph was a fake.)

Hajj was hired as a freelancer, yet, his photographs were able to pass the scrutiny of Reuters staff until being exposed. For more on doctored photos, read the HonestReporting communique on the scandal.

3) Distortion of facts

This Associated Press photo was actually published in the New York Times on Sept. 30, 2000 under the first caption. Take a closer look – in the background are cars, a gas station and Hebrew writing, none of which would be present on the Temple Mount. The identity of the victim was revealed when Dr. Aaron Grossman of Chicago recognized his son Tuvia and wrote to the New York Times. See here for the full story of how this photo and the resulting controversy launched HonestReporting. Now even if we assume that this caption was just a mistake, the damage was done. While this photo created a controversy resulting in a very public retraction, very often it is the incorrect caption that is what is remembered, not the correction.

4) Photographs Not Used

Often bias is the result of photographs NOT used that would have clearly illustrated an accompanying story. On January 3, 2004, three Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers. This is how the events were reported by Reuters and the Associated Press.

Reuters: “Israeli soldiers have shot dead three Palestinians, including a 15-year-old boy, who were throwing stones in protests around the West Bank city of Nablus early on Saturday local time, Palestinian medics and witnesses said.”

Associated Press: “On Saturday, troops opened fire at a large number of Palestinians throwing stones, an army spokesman said.”

Most readers will be lead to believe that the Israeli soldiers severely overreacted to children throwing small rocks. Yet if the following photograph had accompanied the story, readers would have gotten a much clearer view of what really happened on that day:

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