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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Media needs to check its facts

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

A recent little incident here in the newsroom has got this writer thinking about how some of the bigger papers and wire services are dealing with mistakes or sometimes, outright fabrications making it into print.

Following Eugene Ray's victory in the race for county mayor last week, our city editor John Carney took a call from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who wanted to do a story about one of Tennessee's first black county mayors.

The Tennessean had already done a piece on this angle of the story and apparently, the Georgia paper was following the same course, seemingly focusing more on the color of our new county mayor's skin rather than the content of his character.

Pointing out the 8.5 percentage of blacks in the county, the AJC said that Ray's election "was one of several in which racial barriers fell Thursday in Tennessee." Which isn't how this writer sees it. It was more like the voters went out and pulled the lever for the best man for the job.

In fact, that's exactly what John told them: That Eugene is a Shelbyville real estate agent, served as chairman of the county's Board of Commissioners and as president of the Chamber of Commerce. John is quoted as attributing Ray's victory to "nothing I can think of --- other than he's earned it."

Which is exactly what he said. But the problem isn't the quote: It's that they identified John as "Paul."

I heard John repeat his name several times to the Georgia reporter, and yet the wrong name made it into print. John has taken it in stride, joking that at least they didn't call him George or Ringo. The paper called Tuesday and apologized, promising a correction, but combined with two other media related incidents this weekend, it makes one wonder about just how much inaccurate or even false information is getting out there.

Reuters has fired free-lance photographer Adnan Hajj after the Internet site Little Green Footballs pointed out that a image he submitted with clouds billowing over Beirut from an apparent bombing raid by Israeli jets had been digitally altered or "photoshopped" to make the smoke appear thicker and darker and the damage much worse than it actually was.

The alteration of the image was so badly done that anyone who saw the picture was able to tell it has been changed. Even folks without any photographic background were calling it fake. In fact, one parody image that introduced Godzilla to the smashed Beirut skyline looked more realistic than the one that Reuters ran.

It took a whole day for the international wire service to pull the photo. Then they began to check others submitted by the stringer.

As of this writing, another one of Hajj's photos has been found to have been altered; a shot of an Israeli jet which had extra flares added to the picture. This was noticed due to the exact duplication of smoke patterns in the image. The whole flap has put Hajj's credibility under a microscope since he was the same photographer that shot the aftermath of the recent bombing in Qana, where scores of innocent woman and children were supposedly killed.

I have to now say "supposedly" because there have been charges from critics who believe many of the photos were staged as part of a Hezbollah propaganda ploy. One of the things they point out is the repeated appearance of "Green Helmet Guy," a fellow allegedly associated with the Islamic militants that always happens to appear at each and every bombing site in Lebanon to hold up the battered corpses of "victims" for photographers.

"Green Helmet Guy" isn't the only one who really gets around. Reuters recently ran a photo on its wire service of a impoverished looking woman wailing "after looking at the wreckage of her apartment, in a building, that was demolished by the Israeli attacks in southern Beirut July 22."

Then two weeks later, the Associated Press ran a similar shot showing a woman reacting "at the destruction after she came to inspect her house in the suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2006, after Israeli warplanes repeatedly bombed the area overnight."

Once again, it was the bloggers that spotted something amiss: It was the same woman in both pictures published two weeks apart wearing the same clothes. Either she is the unluckiest multiple home-owner in all of Lebanon, or something more dishonest is going on, bloggers say.

One blogger pointed out that many news outlets are now outsourcing so much of their reporting to "low-paid foreign stringers with highly questionable loyalties and ethics" that it's no surprise that something like this has been happening.

These sort of things aren't new. In 2003, an image by Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski was found to have been altered. The photo was a British soldier directing Iraqi civilians to take cover from Iraqi fire on the outskirts of Basra. After it was published, it was noticed that several people in the background appeared twice. It has also been changed to make it appear that the soldier is threatening and yelling at a man with a child in his arms.

But the biggest journalistic boo-boo to come out of this latest Middle East conflict happened Monday after hundreds of papers across the country, including this publication, ran an AP piece about an Israeli raid on a Lebanese village that left 40 dead.

Then, 30 minutes after our printing presses fired up, AP runs an alert that says: "Lebanese prime minister says only 1 person died in an Israeli air raid on the southern village of Houla, lowering the death toll from 40."

That's quite a bit of a difference in the body count, don't you think? The prime minister attributed the discrepancy to "unspecified information that he had received." Didn't any reporter follow up on this original statement and confirm it? Did anyone pay a visit to Houla to see for themselves? Or was the word from one side of a volatile conflict good enough that it didn't have to be fact-checked?

The current Middle East situation is obviously a controversial one, with supporters from both sides in a public relations battle to get their perspectives out there. But when combat photographers start altering their images and journalists play loose with the facts of the story they are covering, simple mistakes start looking more and more like deliberate lies favoring one side. This is much more serious than the difference between John and Paul.

We've made our share of errors here at the T-G, myself included. But it is normally confined to the misspelling or the omission of a name. The one-sided or dishonest actions of a very few with access to a world-wide audience can alter opinions and policy across the globe. Just look back at how stories in the publications of William Randolph Hearst pushed us into the Spanish-American War over 100 years ago.

One thing I hear all the time is that young people want to get into the journalism field to "make a difference" or "change the world." It's a noble thought, but that isn't our job. Journalists are more like front-line historians. We are the first ones with boots on the ground to get the facts out to the rest of the world. Our accounts and images are relied on later down the road when the history books are being written.

But, if those stories and pictures are less than honest, the history book will be, too. History, it seems, isn't always written by the victors, but by those with the most convincing spin.