MSM Grapple with Fake Photos From Iraq

Neil Munro writes in National Journal that media outlets struggle with how to sift through the "daily downloads of news photos" that include photos that are "staged, fake, or so lacking in context as to be meaningless."

Some bogus pictures have resulted in violence.

On January 14...shortly after unmanned U.S. aircraft fired missiles at several suspected leaders of Al Qaeda who were thought to be staying in the village of Damadola, Pakistan, Agence France-Presse distributed a picture said to be from the scene. AFP is based in Paris, and the picture was sent by one of its locally hired photographers, a stringer. The photo showed a piece of military equipment placed on a damaged stone wall, flanked by a solemn old man and a young boy. Another firm, Getty Images, also distributed the photo to picture editors at newspapers and magazines around the world. The New York Times published it in the paper's January 14 Web edition, and Time magazine ran the picture in its January 23 print edition, along with the caption "Detritus from the latest U.S. raid in Pakistan."

But the caption was wrong, the pose was staged, and the picture was, in essence, untrue. The initial AFP caption said that the military object was a piece of a missile from the U.S. strike. Later, AFP issued a correction, labeling the object an unexploded artillery shell.

But it was not a U.S. shell. It was most likely a fired but unexploded artillery shell, identical to those manufactured by Pakistan Ordnance Factories and it was brought there from somewhere else and posed atop the wall.

There have been some firings as a result of fake photos.

In 2003, the Los Angeles Times fired a photographer after he used software to merge two photographs of refugees in southern Iraq into a more striking image that was published in The Hartford Courant and the Chicago Tribune. In the United Kingdom, the top editor of The Daily Mirror was fired in 2004 after he published several pictures of what seemed to be British soldiers beating up an Iraqi prisoner. The pictures were discredited when the people who provided them could not explain discrepancies about the soldiers' equipment and vehicles. In April 2003, after U.S. troops moved in to occupy Baghdad, London's Evening Standard published a front-page photograph of a large crowd of Iraqis celebrating. Bloggers analyzing the photo, however, quickly pointed out that parts of the photo apparently were doctored and that many members of the crowd appear multiple times in the photo. The bloggers suggested that it was altered to make the crowd seem larger than it was. The Standard's managing editor, Doug Wills, countered that that was "absolute nonsense. [The photo] was a single image taken from a television screen," and only a small piece of the image was replicated to fill in the blank space created by the removal of the TV's company logo, he said....

It is not just photographers or their editors who can manipulate images. Terrorists anywhere, and insurgents in Iraq specifically, can and do manipulate photos for their own uses. In Iraq, insurgents have displayed and passed around, for example, pictures said to show U.S. soldiers raping Iraqi women. They have also circulated photos of "giant spiders" supposedly sent by Allah to save Falluja from the Americans. The pictures were, in fact, crude photocopies of an American soldier's souvenir photo of two connected solifugids, also known as camel spiders, which are native to Iraq. In the photo, a soldier was holding up the two connected arachnids before an audience of other soldiers, according to Nir Rosen, a writer and a fellow at the New America Foundation, who stayed with insurgents in Falluja....

The supposed rape pictures were far more important, Rosen said. In a February article for The New York Times Magazine, Rosen quoted a Jordanian Islamist's testimony that the pictures helped to galvanize insurgent activity in Falluja. "In the beginning, [the Fallujans] had said to the insurgents, 'Go make jihad in your own country.' After the rape story, they said, 'OK, we want to start now, or tomorrow we will find our mothers or daughters or sisters raped.' This story exploded the resistance in Falluja. They called us for a meeting and said, 'You were right.'" Rosen told National Journal that the rape pictures resembled those now displayed on a Web site maintained by a radical U.S. Hispanic group, La Voz de Aztlan Communications Network.