The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, April 15, 2004

In news criticism, bogus images get a free-ish ride

We've passed the anniversary of US [1] news organisations' day of infamy - April 9 2003, when the USG stunt of the toppling of Saddam's statue was portrayed as some kind of popular event [2].

Whereas breasts are freely beaten over Jayson Blair - and the sins of the likes of Judith Miller are at least discussed (albeit within a narrow circle) - this monumental hoax, to which the modest august organs of the written and broadcast media pretty much gave a free pass, strangely itself is pretty much given a free pass.

Framing is a term of art in the news manipulation business - and with reason: because framing, in the more practical sense, was how the images necessary to perpetrating the hoax were obtained. A single wide shot would reveal the Emperor's tackle in all its hideousness.

Having in mind that I did not record this fateful day in the annals of media sell-out, I bring to your attention the case of Demi Moore's dress, as photoshopped in Bonnie Fuller's Star (WSJ April 14): Moore was snapped parading in a brown dress with the infant Kutcher. But the funsters at the Star turned the dress wedding-white.

Laugh? I nearly started.

After being flagged by Romenesko - whose stuff I'm rather assuming readers here would naturally look at daily - one Len Hochberg writes in the Forum (April 17) pointing out the double standard:
...bizarre because they don't view photos as they do words. Presumably (hopefully??), they wouldn't change a quote to better suit a story, as was the reasoning behind changing the clothing color. Well, changing a photo is changing a fact...

Now, of course the US Supreme Court in Masson v New Yorker (1991) gave journos licence to tinker with what they put between quotation marks. But I sense a certain reluctance to do so amongst scribes.

Photos, on the other hand, have been manipulated since they first appeared in newspapers. The simplest manipulation - cropping - requires nothing but a ruler and a sharp knife to matt out the unwanted portion of the image.

Cropping's power to distort meaning first - and very late - came home to me (I think I've mentioned this before) when, around 1990, a photo in a British paper was given a prize, and discussed on a TV arts show. It showed a wall in Northern Ireland on which was painted the words
Time for peace
There was kid in frame to cutesy-pie it up, I think.

It later emerged that the photo had been cropped: what it actually said was
Time for peace. Time to go.

Which as every Ulsterman knew - but few on the mainland did - was a Provisional IRA slogan, directed at HMG. Part of the terror campaign: in context, peace means surrender.

From the snapper to the newspaper's editor [3], a conspiracy to cheat the reader. Ten times worse than anything Jayson Blair ever managed. And it got a prize.

Images, which seem to bypass some of the quality control mechanisms that the brain provides, may not have greater potential for evil than text, but a modicum of evil is, perhaps, easier to achieve [4].

And, the net is (porn and music aside) overwhelmingly a text medium. News sites tend to segregate their photos from their news pages - or provide low-pixel copies. The impact of photojournalism on the net reader is much less than on the reader of the dead-tree product.

So those who get their news online, as I do, don't generally find news photos thrust in our faces so as to provoke commentary.

  1. And most other.

  2. This 3MB PDF 'scrapbook' is not a bad place to start. Try also Phil Taylor - UK media academic with loadsa links.

  3. Were I able to remember or trace the guilty men or their paper, I should certainly identify them.

  4. Just as, for instance, the violin and the clarinet are equally difficult to play to the highest standard; but it's easier for a novice to attain a sound bearable to the casual listener with a clarinet.

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