The Dangers of Faking It

(my weekly column, syndicated to newspapers)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A 40-ton whale jumped out of the water and crash-landed onto a sailboat the other day. The moment was caught on camera by a tourist, the whale suspended a few meters above the boat before it smashes into mast and deck, leaving behind a mass of barnacle and blubber.

Amazing stuff. So the first question from a TV interviewer to the survivors of this close encounter between man and mammal? “Was this picture Photoshopped?”

Sad, but I have to admit it was my first question too.

Photoshopping—the art of digitally manipulating a photo—has become so commonplace that it probably should be the first question we ask when we see a photo.

After all, it’s understood that every photo in every fashion magazine in the world is Photoshopped—a wrinkle unwrinkled here, eye unbagged there, an inch lost or gained below and above the midriff. We assume, when we look at a flattering photo of a celebrity that it was Photoshopped first (apparently every celebrity has a Photoshopper to do just this.)

But what of news photos? How do we feel about manipulation then?

Take the latest hoo-ha over some BP photos. Turns out that some photos on its website were tweaked to make BP look a bit more on-the-ball about monitoring the Gulf oil spill than it really was. Blank screens at its Houston command center were filled with images copied from other screens, prompting a search of BP’s website for other altered photos.

Another photo showed a helicopter apparently approaching the site of the spill. Upon closer inspection the helicopter was actually on the deck of an aircraft carrier. One can only guess why BP thought it necessary to make the chopper look as if it was flying.

BP, to its credit, has come clean and posted all the photos to a Flickr page “for the sake of transparency.”

But of course, it’s not enough. First off, the explanation is weasel-like: it places the blame on a “contract photographer” and writes vaguely of incidents where “cut-and-paste was also used in the photo-editing process.” It promises to instruct the photographer not to do it again and “to adhere to standard photo journalistic best practices.”

Well, yes and no. I’m willing to bet that a contract photographer did not make these kinds of decisions alone. And to suggest that a photographer contracted by BP to make photos for BP is somehow being asked to perform as a photo journalist is disingenuous.

I’m guessing, for example, that if the contract photographer had snapped some images of dying pelicans or oil-heavy beaches they wouldn’t be posted to the BP website “to adhere to standard photo journalistic best practices.” (In fact it’s quite fun to browse their photo gallery and look at how carefully the photos have been collected and presented. Compare them with others on Flickr, the titles of which sound unfortunately like items on a menu: “Hermit Crabs In BP Oil,” for example.)

Of course, no one expects BP to publish anything that may undermine its position. The problem lies with the fact that someone, somewhere in BP thought it worth tampering with what it did publish to improve its position.

Some have argued, so what? They fiddled with a couple of photos to make themselves seem a bit more industrious than they really were. So what?

Well, I would have thought it obvious, but the fact that people have argued this suggests it requires an answer. First off, it was bloggers who exposed the fraud. Hats off to them. A sign that crowd-sourcing this kind of thing works.

Secondly, while in itself more pathetic than malign, the manipulation proves that manipulation happens. We (well, not we journalists, but we bloggers) checked, and found the photos were faked. What else has BP faked?

Suggesting it’s the work of some rogue contract photographer doesn’t cut it. If BP’s PR crew knew what they were doing, and held themselves to “stand photo journalistic best practices, ” they would have spotted the amateurish Photoshopping and taken action.

Instead they didn’t spot it, or spotted it and didn’t care, or they actually commissioned it. Or did it themselves. Whatever, they didn’t come clean, so to speak, until they’d been had, and then wheeled out the “transparency defense”—a tad too late, I fear, to convince anyone that that’s where their instincts lay.

Photos, you see, are pretty strong stuff.

Since their invention we have granted them special powers. Photographs preserve information and speak to us in a way that words do not—and, perhaps, video. Think of all those photos that have captured not only a moment but a slice of history: 9/11, the Vietnam War, the Spanish Civil War.

The problem is that we’re gradually waking up to the fact that photographs lie. It’s an odd process, this learning about the power of misrepresentation. It’s part technology, part distance, part a growing understanding that we have ascribed photos a power and finality they don’t deserve.

Let me put it more simply through an example: Robert Capa’s famous 1936 photo of the Falling Soldier. This one photo seemed to sum up not only the Spanish Civil War, but war itself. Only, it’s now widely believed the photo was staged, that Capa may have asked the soldier to fake his death. Does it matter?

Capa’s biographer Richard Whelan argues it doesn’t, that “the picture’s greatness actually lies in its symbolic implications, not in its literal accuracy.”

This, is, of course, incorrect. Its symbolic implications lie in its accuracy.

And, of course, this is the problem. We need our photos to say something, to express a view that supplements, that goes beyond, the text that might accompany them, the truth that we need to have illustrated for us. And that’s where the problem begins.

Capa may not have intended his photo to be quite so iconic. After all, he took a bunch of photos that day, most of them unremarkable. An editor decided this was one of those he would publish.

Photographers are now aware they get one shot. So they’re pushed to capture more and more in the frame—more, perhaps, than was ever there. And, it turns out, have been doing so for as long as there have been cameras. One of the first war photographs, of the Crimean War’s Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton in 1855, was staged—by physically moving cannonballs to the middle of the road.

Nowadays the cannonballs could have been moved more easily: by Photoshop. A mouse click can add smoke to burning buildings in the Lebanon, to thicken a crowd, darken OJ Simpson’s face, or, in the case of Xinhua photographer Liu Weiqing, add antelope to a photo of a high-speed train.

Just as digitizing makes all this easier, so it makes it easier to spot errors. The problem is that we don’t have time to do this, meaning that it falls to bloggers and others online to do the work for us.

But it’s not as easy as it may look with hindsight, and the fact that we create a distinction between images we expect to be faked—fashion, celebrity, sex—and those we don’t—news, suggests that we either have to get a lot better at spotting fakery or we need to insist that photos contain some watermark to prove they are what they’re purporting to be.

The bottom line is that it’s probably a good thing that the first question we ask of a photo is whether it’s fake. Turns out that we should have been asking that question a long time ago.

But there’s another possibility: that there may come a point where we just don’t trust photos anymore. It’s probably up to us journalists to find a way to stop that from happening.

SideWiki’s Wish Fulfilment

A piece in today’s Guardian attracted my attention–“SideWiki Changes Everything”—as I thought, perhaps, it might shed new light on Google’s browser sidebar that allows anyone to add comments to a website whether or not the website owner wants them to. The piece calls the evolution of SideWiki a “seminal moment”.

The column itself, however, is disappointing, given that SideWiki has been out six weeks already:

Few people in PR, it seems, have considered the way that SideWiki will change the lives of beleaguered PR folk. In time, this tool will significantly change the way brands strategise, think and exist. SideWiki is going to challenge PR by providing the masses with the tool for the ultimate expression of people power, something uncontainable that will need constant monitoring.

The author, one Mark Borkowski, offers no examples of this happening, so the piece is very much speculation. In fact, I’d argue that SideWiki has been something of a damp squib:

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A, by the way, marks the launch, so the interest fell off dramatically almost immediately.

So who is right? I can find very little evidence that people are using SideWiki in the way that Borkowski suggests. A look at top 10 U.S. companies (not the top 10, but a cross section) indicates that only one company has ‘claimed’ its SideWiki page, and that few users, so far, have made use of SideWiki to express their views about the company:

Company Entries Claimed Comments
Walmart 2 No Even
Exxon Mobil 0 No
Chevron 0 No
GM 0 No
Apple 20+ No Even
Monsanto 0 No
Starbucks 0 No
White House 2 (blog posts) No
Blackberry 2 Yes Even
Microsoft 20+ No Negative

Now I’m not saying that SideWiki isn’t going to be an important way for people to get around websites’ absence of comment boxes or lack of contact information. I’d love it if that was the case. I’m just saying there’s very little evidence of it so far, so to argue that is premature at best, and poor journalism at worst.

And here’s the rub. Mark Borkowski is not a journalist. He doesn’t claim to be; he’s a PR guy. But how would you know that? The Guardian page on which his comment sits does not clearly indicate that; indeed, the format is exactly the same as for its journalist contributors:

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Only at the bottom does one find out that he “is founder and head of Borkowski PR.”

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I have no problem with PR guys writing comment pieces for my favorite newspaper. I just want to know that is who they are before I start reading. (I can hear the argument being made that Borkowski is a well-known name in the UK, so this shouldn’t be necessary. But that doesn’t hold water. The affiliation of all writers should be clearly indicated.)

The problem? Anyone who is not a journalist—and many who are–has an interest, and that interest should be clearly declared. In Borkowski’s case, he works in PR, and is clearly suggesting that PR agencies need to work harder in this space:

The social media world encloses our personal and professional actions – the only answer for PR folk is to take a more active role in being brand custodians, representing a higher degree of brand and reputation management.

In other words, he’s indirectly touting for business. Once again, nothing wrong with that if the piece is clearly tagged as an opinion piece—which it may be, in the print version. But here, online, there’s no such indication.

Of course, one should also check that the writer does not have a financial or business interest in the product and company being written about, in this case Google. I can find none on his website, but that I have to check—that it’s not clearly flagged on the piece itself—is not something I or other readers should have to do.

Bottom line? The Guardian isn’t alone in this. The Wall Street Journal does it too. But I don’t think it helps these great brands to, wittingly or unwittingly, dismantle the Chinese Walls between content by its own reporters and those outsiders who, however smart and objective they are, have interests that readers need to know about.

SideWiki changes everything | Mark Borkowski | Media | The Guardian

We’re All Information Gatherers Now

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When we talk about the future of newspapers, the future of education, the future of media, and the future of learning we tend to ignore the most important aspect. We tend to focus on information delivery and not on the nature of information seeking. We think, somehow, that we still need to get the same kind of information to people, but just in a different way. But the bigger shift is how the Internet has changed what kind of information we’re looking for and how we go about finding it.

A British Library report on the future of libraries [PDF] hits the nail on the head:

Library users demand 24/7 access, instant gratification at a click, and are increasingly looking for “the answer” rather than for a particular format: a research monograph or a journal article for instance. So they scan, flick and “power browse” their way through digital content, developing new forms of online reading on the way that we do not yet fully understand (or, in many cases, even recognise.)

A page later, the report says:

In general terms, this new form of information seeking behaviour can be characterised as being horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature. Users are promiscuous, diverse and volatile and it is clear that these behaviours represent a serious challenges for traditional information providers, nurtured in a hardcopy paradigm and, in many respects, still tied to it.

 John Naughton at The Observer helps put this in context:

What Marshall McLuhan called ‘the Gutenberg galaxy’ – that universe of linear exposition, quiet contemplation, disciplined reading and study – is imploding, and we don’t know if what will replace it will be better or worse.

This is true, of course, not just of libraries and academia. It’s true of newspapers and pretty much any medium that delivers information. The Internet has forced us, encouraged us, to develop scanning techniques way beyond the simple quick-reading skills of old. Now if I’m looking for information on the Gutenberg Galaxy I can do so quickly on Wikipedia simply by selecting the words on the page, right-clicking and selecting Search Google for… in the pop-up menu. Time taken: 2 seconds. (Indeed, Naughton and The Guardian/Observer could be considered somewhat backward by not providing the link in the piece itself.)

This ability to secure, and appetite for, quick access to snippets information (what I guess we used to call “gobbets“) is part and parcel of the web and of the lives of those who spend any time on it. Why hunt for a dictionary if you can look it up on your cellphone/laptop/fridge display? The impact is still not properly understood or studied, however. If we satisfy our curiosity so easily, does our curiosity grow in all directions, both in breadth and depth, or does it flit from flower to flower like a bumble-bee in summer?

The British Library research seems to suggest the latter. Using words like horizontal, bouncing, checking, viewing, promiscuous, diverse and volatile seems to suggest we’re entering a world where people are fickle and their attention spans short. Once the initial curiosity is satisfied (“What the hell is a gobbet?”) the reader moves on, following the Serendipidity of the Hyperlink.

On the other hand, the word seems to suggest the readers have built-in safeguards against misinformation and inaccuracy. Our scanning skills are honed beyond merely being able to take in a page of information quickly. We — or most of us; Facebook seems to presenting a challenge, if all the gullible messages my friends send me are representative — are able to judge the source of information too, based on the layout, design and style of a web page and its contents.

This latter skill may be more important in the long run. Perhaps the shift is more about our understanding of what we need to know, and the time we can dedicate to knowing it, than to any shift in our attention span or ability to absorb deep columns of information.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, in fact, was bound to come to an end sometime. We simply have too much information to digest nowadays to be able, most of us, to take a leisurely stroll through the literature. And, frankly, in academic terms, much of the literature could be better and more tightly written. (I admit, I scanned the BT report and was mildly irritated it was a) in PDF format which slows digestion, b) didn’t conform to usual layouts and c) lacked an executive summary and conclusion).

If there wasn’t much information out there, and not much access to it, I would probably be quite happy dedicating my time to knowing a lot about Chaucer or the sex life of the fruitfly, and not much else. But the Internet has taught us a valuable lesson that we, as a race, seem to have forgotten: That there is so much stuff to learn out there we should be in a mad race to learn as much as we can about it as we can before we’re run over by a Sat Nav-dependent truck.

Perhaps our generation will be the last to be stupid enough to think we know enough as individuals to be smart (or conversely, happy to wallow in our specialist expertise and general ignorance). Future generations may look back at us and ask why we were so incurious about all the things in front of us we didn’t know anything about. Right now, I’d settle for knowing why the sky is blue, how many Grand Slam tournaments there are, what a grommet is and why there seem to be so many different types of plug to go on the end of a coaxial cable.

Thank God we’re at last beginning to learn the skills necessary to find that stuff out before breakfast.

Reading:

John Naughton: Thanks, Gutenberg – but we’re too pressed for time to read | Media | The Observer

Gutenberg and the changing nature of how we read and find information

‘Google Generation’ is a myth: pioneering research