When the Truth is a Lie, an Image is an Ethical Selfie


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By Geoff Davidian

President Trump’s use of props to advance an inaccurate narrative creates a dilemma for media that once was just worst-case theory

Should the press stop reporting what the president says and does when journalists know the message is untrue?

This question comes up in every journalism student’s ethics training: Is a reporter an unbiased conveyor of official messaging? Or should a reporter edit messages that mislead the public and detract from the truth? Over the past three months, presidential briefings on the coronavirus pandemic have consumed hours of air time and the arcane discussion has come out of the classroom.

Two photographs from the May 11 White House briefing are the latest reference points for how content producers try to deal with false claims.

Mr. Trump addressed about three dozen people at the Rose Garden briefing and claimed his administration is besting the world in testing. Flanking him were two banners, about 36 square feet each, stating “AMERICA LEADS THE WORLD IN TESTING.”

If nothing more, the banners are boastful props; part of a display that meets Encyclopaedia Britannica’s definition of propaganda: “dissemination of information—facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies—to influence public opinion.”

They deliberately select facts, arguments, and displays of symbols and present them in ways they think will have the most effect. To maximize effect, they may omit or distort pertinent facts or simply lie, and they may try to divert the attention of the reactors (the people they are trying to sway) from everything but their own propaganda.

It is irrefutable that a widely distributed photograph by AFP’s Brendan Smialowski did not include the boast-bearing banners, while an image by Kevin Lamarque distributed by Reuters shows the banners and amplified the president’s message.

Late last March, CNN’s Don Lemon said the network should stop listening to what President Trump says about the pandemic at press briefings and only listen to the experts.

“I am not sure, if you want to be honest, that we should carry that live,” Lemon told fellow CNN host Chris Cuomo. “I think we should run snippets. I think we should do it afterward and get the pertinent points to the American people, because he’s never, ever going to tell you the truth.”

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes joined the discussion: “They have morphed into something akin to Trump rallies without the crowds,” Hayes said. “The briefings are where he casts his failures in the most positive light. Yesterday the man who initially dismissed the coronavirus threat—remember we have all heard it time and time again—said that if 100,000 persons died from the virus, he and his team have done a quote, very good job.” Hayes called the briefings “propaganda sessions” in which Trump is “regularly spewing misinformation and lies at the podium.”

Yet when the journalists decide what is important, you have more questions, different questions, and the questions are about the ethics of the journalist and the outlet, not the truthfulness of the politician.

Did the Smialowski image make a statement by editing or cropping the propaganda banners out of the shot? Is Lamarque a lackey for mindlessly amplifying President Trump’s claims? Photographer Smialowski did not reply to a request for an interview.

Whether or not you like the message, the fact that the president put up the banners is a story in itself, says Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcast and online at the Poynter Institute.

“The larger question is one of context.” The banner makes it look “more like a campaign event than an informational setting,” Tompkins said.  “It is just bragging.”

And that is why the banners should have been in the picture, Tompkins said.

Not including the banners is not censoring the president because “it’s not like the public doesn’t have access to these images. They were carried live,” Tompkins told Project Censored.

But he said to ethically document the event, the photo had to be in context, and the banners were what gave the photo meaning. Without the banners, the image is just another unremarkable picture.

“Context is key,” Tompkins said. “Any setting can lose its meaning without context. An image can be accurate but not truthful.” The difference between truth and accuracy is context. “I don’t see much value to the image without the banners.”

Photographers have the mission of capturing the truth. We do not know whether the image distributed by AFP was Smialowski’s full frame shot, whether he edited or cropped a larger image, or whether someone at AFP or Getty Images edited a larger image.

“We don’t know who edited it,” Tompkins said, “but it’s not censoring. It’s bad editing.”

He said editing is part of the process with all photographs, which may be cropped for size, brightened, or darkened to compensate for poor lighting or otherwise technically manipulated— within limits. Edit it too much and it becomes an illustration, which is not expected to factually document an event.

The banners draw attention to the central issue: “Does his brag measure up to the truth?” We lose that issue when we lose the context.

The idea that a journalist is objective is a misnomer, Tompkins said. Photojournalists, like news writers and cable hosts, have biases, “and a professional must be willing to overcome the bias to report the truth.”

“Are you open to the truth no matter what your bias?” he asked.

“The best photos add information to a story. The artwork should add a dimension, it is a different way of finding truth.”

Photojournalism has its own code of ethics. When a photographer or photo editor makes changes to a photo by cropping or tweaking the brightness, “it should be to render it to as close to the reality as possible.” The editing should “help reader see what you did through the viewfinder.”

An unscientific reverse Google image search on May 13 showed 61 media outlets chose the edited photo, and 51 selected the one that truthfully depicted the event.

With that in mind, let’s see what cable does.

Geoff Davidian is an investigative reporter, editor, and educator. The founding publisher and editor of the Putnam Pit, Milwaukee Press, and ShorewoodNewsroom, he also serves as one of Project Censored’s judges.

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