When one man spotted what all news media missed

Tuesday 8 May 2012, 12:54

Silvia Costeloe Silvia Costeloe

On 15 February, the worst prison fire in a century consumed an overcrowded jail in Honduras killing 361 people. Dramatic pictures were broadcast extensively on mainstream media outlets, including the BBC, to tell the story - until, thanks to one member of the audience, we realised that they were the wrong pictures.

The prison at the heart of the tragedy is located on the outskirts of Comayagua, once the capital of Honduras. The city has a wealth of colonial architecture but in 2009 a large fire wiped out part of its history by destroying the Episcopal Palace, which then hosted a museum. Dramatic pictures can be found on Spanish language media and on YouTube.

Unfortunately, the video that illustrated the prison fire for most of the day on mainstream news outlets actually showed the Episcopal Palace fire from 2009.

As the story of the prison fire was breaking, BBC News offered a form on the bottom of its online news article asking people if they had been affected by the tragedy.

Throughout the day, hundreds of comments were sent to the BBC - mainly messages of condolence or about the state of prisons - but one man said we were showing the wrong video: "That is a video of the museum that caught fire several years ago." No location of this previous fire or date was given. 

Honduras prison fire

The Honduras prison fire of 2012


The Episocopal Palace fire

The Honduras Episocopal Palace fire of 2009

As a result of the message, we did some searches online about museum fires in Honduras but couldn't find any relevant information. We also did some generic searches on Twitter and other social media sites in Spanish to see if anyone else was complaining that the wrong pictures were being shown but again, nothing. We tried to compare past stills of the prison with the fire pictures we had but there was nothing conclusive.

Overall, we decided we didn't have enough reason to doubt the video we were running: it had a Honduran Maya TV graphic logo and was sent to us by Reuters. We don't generally re-verify pictures that come in from trusted agencies unless they're particularly contentious - like Arab Spring videos - or if they have been posted by audience members on social media sites. We did email the viewer however, asking if he had more information he could share.

Later in the evening that he kindly responded with more information and with a link to a blog. We were able to see that the fire he referred to had indeed happened in 2009, in the heart of the city, just opposite Comayagua's cathedral - and far from the outskirts, where the prison is located.

The cathedral has some architecturally interesting features: at the top corners of the façade there are some small round spheres. We hadn't yet found the footage we were running as a YouTube upload from 2009 (albeit without the Maya TV logo): this would have been the strongest evidence we were running the wrong pictures.

But in the footage, there is a moment when the camera pans away from the burning building and shows the building opposite. You catch a glimpse of small round spheres on top of a large building. For just a moment, we're looking at the cathedral in the city centre - at 0.34 in the YouTube clip.

We pulled the pictures and communicated our doubts to Reuters, who informed their other clients.

What I found particularly interesting in this unfortunate event was that it seemed to demonstrate a huge gulf between mainstream media - including Twitter - and audiences in Honduras. Despite the dramatic pictures running extensively on TV and online, we just saw one comment doubting the veracity of the pictures.

A spokeswoman from Reuters said: "No conclusive proof has been established to date, but where there was an element of doubt we felt we had a responsibility to take this action and inform our clients. We are continuing to investigate the matter."

Genuine pictures of the prison fire (above) were taken and shared by Carlos Alfredo Garcia Zepeda in Comayagua. Picture of the Episcopal Palace fire is a still frame from a clip by 'maestrospendos' on YouTube also sent round by Reuters.

Silvia Costeloe - @scosteloe - is a Senior Broadcast Journalist on the UGC hub in BBC News.


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