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Trusting photos

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Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 09:59 UK time, Tuesday, 8 August 2006

As with any conflict, photographers are at the heart of the propaganda war - with both sides attempting to use the power of the camera to their own ends.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteYesterday’s announcement by Reuters that it has withdrawn all the pictures taken by Adnan Hajj (one of its stringers in Lebanon), following his use of Photoshop to manipulate two images, has meant all of us need to understand the processes by which these pictures are obtained and used.

I asked the BBC News website's picture editor, Phil Coomes, to explain some of the background to the images we can easily take for granted.

    "At the BBC News website we rely on a number of international news agencies to provide us with the majority of our still images. Trusted and well established names such as the Associated Press and Agence France Press sit beside new players in the game such as Getty News Images.
    "All of these companies have their own staff photographers who work alongside local freelancers around the world - forwarding their pictures to an editor who will then send it on to their subscribers.
    "At the BBC we receive over 5,000 pictures per day on the picture wire service; ten years ago it would have been less than 500. News websites need vast quantities of pictures and often in real-time - the days of a photographer providing the one defining image for a newspaper front page are long gone.
    "All the pictures we use are checked for any obvious editing - the easiest to spot being cloning of parts of the image (which appeared to be what happened in this example).
    "Today a photographer working in the field is under more pressure than ever, especially in a combat zone. He or she no longer has to just take the pictures, not to mention ensure they are in the right place to begin with, but they also have to edit, caption and transmit them.
    "For this and other reasons photographers often work together, so at any major event you will usually have a number of sources to compare against each other - giving a good indication as to the basic truth of the picture.
    "The Qana pictures are interesting, in that there are many ways to interpret the images. The basic truth is undeniable, but with so many photographers all shooting the same event, and filing many alternative pictures to their agencies, the sequence of events is hard to pin down.
    "To some extent the presence of a camera will alter the event, but it’s up to those on the ground to work around this and present us with an objective a view as possible.
    "Digital photography has altered the landscape of photojournalism like nothing before it, placing the photographers in total control of their output. All the news agencies have photo ethics policies, many of which are rooted in the days of film. The standard line is that photographers are allowed to use photo manipulation to reproduce that which they could do in the darkroom with conventional film.
    "This usually means, colour balance, 'dodging and burning', cropping, touching up any marks from dust on the sensor and perhaps a little sharpening. If we are honest though, an accomplished darkroom technician could do almost anything and there are many historical examples of people being airbrushed from pictures.
    "By definition a photograph is a crop of reality, it’s what the photojournalist feels is important. But it doesn't equate to the whole truth, and perhaps we just need to accept that."

UPDATE (from Steve Herrmann): I should have said at the start - we didn't use the Reuters picture on the BBC News website.

But we have had some emails about another picture we used yesterday of a Lebanese woman in front of damaged buildings. We got the picture from AP and it was dated last Saturday but a reader pointed out it bore a resemblance to another picture - which we hadn't run - attributed to Reuters and dating from July.

It wasn't the same image, but conceivably could have been the same place and time. We weren't in a position to get to the bottom of this immediately ourselves so we decided to update the picture with a different, more recent image. But not before it was picked up by at least one blog.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website


It is so strange, as someone who works in digital design (not even specifically on digital photography) that photo has obviously been gone at with a clong tool. Why would a RUETERS photographer think no one would notice that?

  • 2.
  • At 12:09 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

Anyone who chooses to "alter reality" by changing the tone of an article or by editing a photo ceases to be a journalist and instead becomes involved in propoganda.

The most important thing in journalism should be the desire to tell the truth.

Just a slight change of focus can portray one side in a better light then the other.

The BBC seems to give a higher importance on reporting civilian casualties in Lebanon then Israel, and seems unwilling to explain why in Israel a greater percentage of soldiers are killed then civilians. Israeli soldiers are in uniform, militants/terrorists are not. Militant groups have much to gain by playing down losses of their own members by suggesting that those killed are innocent civilians.

When we launched the citizen journalism agency Scoopt to offer anybody with a camera or cameraphone access to the global media, we were asked again and again (and again) how we could be sure that members of the public would send us legitimate photographs. Surely they would be tempted to send in dodgy 'Photoshopped' pics? Standards would slip, the media would be conned, accuracy and trust would fly out the window, everybody would be sued...

The answer was and remains that we check everything with a healthy measure of journalistic savvy, a dollop of scepticism and a smattering of technology. But what's really surprising about this story is not that reputable Reuters was duped -- doctored pics have always been around and occasionally make it into print quite regardless of citizen journalism -- but that it was duped so easily by such an obvious dud. Salutory lesson to us all in that! And full credit to the blogger who was first (I think) to break the story:

When I look at everything that has haoppened in Lebanon in the last 30 days, I am finding it difficult to focus on the doctoring of photographs as a particular crime. Over 700 civilians have been killed. Firing up Photoshop and changning the color of smoke is not against international law. Murdering children is. I am sorry that the photographer and the agencies have been dragged into this, but can we get back to reporting the fighting?

  • 5.
  • At 01:09 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Steve E wrote:

You claim that “the basic truth (about the deaths at Qana) is undeniable”. However, many around the world have now questioned A) How many civilians actually died during the Israeli bombing of the south Lebanese village, and B) whether those deaths occured as a result of indiscriminate Israeli air attacks or, just as horrendous, the bodies had been killed elsewhere, then used to ‘construct’ an atrocity which was then beamed around the world by duped journalists.
I suspect that “the basic truth” about how these unfortunate women and children actually met their deaths will never be fully explained. However, the fact that a Channel Four correspondent reported yesterday (07/08/06) that the bodies, still unburied, were now to be found in an unrefrigerated track in the city of Tyre suggests that these unfortunates are still being manipulated by malign and cynical forces.

  • 6.
  • At 02:10 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Steven Martin wrote:

It's not just pictures that are doctored. Sound is also routinely doctored. I have a friend who is a sound engineer and he hears standard stock sound effects (including A47 fire) on news reports all the time.

I don't suppose people will be so outraged about that though.

  • 7.
  • At 03:08 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Michelle wrote:

The devil is in the details. Just wondering, how do you scout all the blogs that feature comments about BBC? Is there a trick e.g., through technocrati? Or you have a bunch of interns just doing that? :-)


  • 8.
  • At 03:12 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Ldd wrote:

Only came here to tell you, that this consumer is wise to your biased reporting.

Your (made up) news and programs are banned in our home, thankfully we have that option with our cable package. Your alliance with terrorists is obvious.

from Canada.

p.s. Got a pound riding on the fact this post won't be shown... :)

Could this mean a future where photographs are 'edited' by personell at news services? Perhaps the development of software that detects what type of manipulation was done will be developed...there's already programs that tell you a photo has been photoshopped, just not how.

  • 10.
  • At 03:53 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • miika wrote:

Out of curiosity, how does the BBC handle the possibility of "posed" or otherwise "not-entirely-accurate" images sent in response to the request for cell phone camera images?

Most pros in the digital world shoot in their camera’s “Raw” mode and “extract” the final image later. Thus they depend on their memory to reconstruct the picture. I don’t see basic color correction as a problem because ultimately someone might be trying to be true to what he/she saw as opposed to presenting the imperfection that was captured by the camera (owing to its limitations).

I see a marked tendency in puritans to cry foul over anything that is done to an image outside the camera. (They won’t bat an eyelid if you stack filters in front of your lens). Digital cameras do a whole lot of processing before they write the final image onto their storage media. And increasingly, a lot of what you would do in Photoshop (or used to do in a dark room) is becoming a part of the camera’s “capture and write” cycle (take for instance one of the options on Sony's latest DSLR As the processing power of these cameras increases, the distinction between “as is” and post-processed will blur further.

  • 12.
  • At 04:03 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Paul Chaney wrote:

Reuters admission of a "lapse" in the editing process is pure BS plain and simple. Don't expect me for one minute to believe they didn't know exactly what was going on. (think "rathergate") They just got caught with their pants down by the only truly trustworthy media left, citizen journalists in the blogosphere.

When will the MSM learn they can no longer control the media expecting consumers to, like chattel, believe all the tripe handed to them from the likes of Reuters and the NY Times. The power has shifted into the hands of consumers who are now active participants. Thank God!

  • 13.
  • At 04:32 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • max wrote:

How come you replace a problematic picture without notice or explanation? I mean, were it not for this one blog one couldn't in any way know there was a misleading photo. Even the time stamp wasn't changed. It's a bit dishonest if you ask me.

  • 14.
  • At 04:57 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Matt Russell wrote:

This is also an issue in the scientific community, with respect to the reporting of microscope and other images. For example, the Journal of Cell Science has a policy that only the whole image may be altered (e.g. for contrast/brightness etc.) rather than part of it. This would exclude the possibility of removing dust marks and so on. Since such changes are pretty much cosmetic, perhaps they too should not be allowed by the news agencies. If anything I'd be more trusting of a slightly dusty image!

  • 15.
  • At 05:00 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Stephen MacEwan wrote:

I'm curious about the link on the Qana photos - an entirely hypothetical commentary by someone who's obviously trying to minimise the impact of what happened at Qana. (a) We have no assurance at all from that site that the context of the photos is being described accurately and (b) the language used is loaded in ways that can't be checked. Thus, for example, there's a claim made that the workers recovering the bodies handle them negligently when they're not on camera. Where's the evidence of that? It's not in the photos.

Try not to use one-sided sources, OK?

  • 16.
  • At 05:12 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • clayton adams wrote:

The Adnan Hajj image ('smoke') was so poorly and obviously doctored that any first year university photo student could have spotted it. It was so badly done that at first I though someone must be making a joke. No joke, I guess.
Shame on Hajj for not having any Photoshop skills at all....
Shame on Reuters for not spotting this instantly.

  • 17.
  • At 05:16 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • mark wrote:

This explanation is a travesty. It reads as though Hezbollah AND the Israelis are faking photos and staging scenes. The statements "both sides attempting to use the power of the camera to their own ends" and "The Qana pictures are interesting, in that there are many ways to interpret the images. The basic truth is undeniable" are simply untrue. There is much internal and external evidence that the harrowing Qana shots were staged and that the building collapsed 7 hours after the bombing. As so often the BBC uses weasel words to equate the Israelis (or Blair or Bush) to the terrorists. The BBC has been comprehensively rumbled and should focus on re-establishing its reputation, though it may be too late.

  • 18.
  • At 05:28 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Stephen Ward wrote:

Interesting that in the very first picture of the Qana expose, the scene board is written in English instead of Arabic, making the whole expose suspect.

  • 19.
  • At 05:44 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Martin Audley wrote:

Thank you for clarifying the procedures taken. I don't want to comment on whether sufficient editorial care was taken in examining the Adrian Hajj pictures; that's a separate issue well-covered in the blogosphere.

But I do want to ask - What's with the STEALTH EDITING ?

You agree that pages have been changed to remove the picture of the unfortunate lady home owner. But the BBC website editors do not:
1. Comment on the change at the bottom of edited pages.
2. Change the Last Updated value.

Why not?

Even if your editing does not automatically change the Last Updated value, why do you not have a policy that the person editing the page has to change it?

  • 20.
  • At 05:55 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • John Anderson wrote:

Why does the BBC call its comments spaces "blogs". They are nothing like REAL blogs - no comments whatsoever have been admitted to this piece even 8 hours after it opened.

Why should we the punters be opaying for this sort of facility if it is not run properly ? It is bad enough watching the BBC "Have Your Say" comments sites - where lots of very dodgy posts are moderated "in" but many straightforward posts are not admitted. Plus very long delays for the moderators to do anything at all. Or on the unmoderated sections, the numbers of recommendations for posts mysteriously change downwards - with the changes usually to soften criticism of the BBC's treatment.

I appreciate the pressures of editing both online and traditional print media publications in the digital age but such blatant image editing should not have been missed by a "reputable" organisation such as Reuters.

I applaud your refence to the BBC publishing the photograph of "the unluckiest woman in Beirut" BUT you did not admit that it was a mistake. Nor did you confirm the origin of the caption underneath the photo, I am assuming it is the photographer who submits the caption along with the photo, after all a photo without a description has no frame of reference. If it wasn't the photographer, who made the "erroneous" caption, god forbid it was the BBC.....

  • 22.
  • At 06:06 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • thatcher wrote:

After reading your post, I did a quick search to see the images for myself.

Does it seem absurd to anyone else that a professional photograper would have done such a poor job adding extra smoke?

  • 23.
  • At 06:30 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • John wrote:

I'm afraid there's just a bit of circumlocution going on here. The issue isn't so much that two pictures taken at the same place and time were given different dates. It's that they're both pictures of the same woman wearing the same clothes bewailing the "wreckage of her apartment" on July 22 and reacting again to the destruction when she comes to "inspect her house" on August 5. One has to understand how this could have happened. It is implausible that one of the photographers inadvertantly submitted a picture that was dated incorrectly, if it was accompanied by a description that specifically identifies the time and surrounding circumstances of Israeli bombing attacks. One has to consider the possibility that there was a falsification. Possibly, the photographer had nothing interesting to submit that day, and simply entered a two week old story, which is bad enough. But there are also other possibilities, raised by the plethora of this genre of pictures, in which people with all the appearance of victims are portrayed amidst the catastrophes that surround them. The same blog referred to here shows a THIRD picture, this time of a differently dressed woman, on a third date, bewailing the destruction again, credited to Issam Kobeisi, who also took one of the other two photos. BUT... it's apparently the SAME woman! This raises the possibility that this woman is one of a cast of regulars who stage their anguish, for obvious propaganda purposes. It's hard to imagine that photographers would not recognize their subjects if they reappeared, so there's also the issue of possible complicity by the photographers themselves.

So what's going on? That's what all the news agencies, including the BBC, should be getting to the bottom of, assuming they are not also complicit (and to be candid, one wonders about the BBC's own caption of one of these photos: "For many in Beirut the bombing feels like collective punishment" - this borders on aiding and abetting the propaganda, to make sure the public is enraged by coupling photographic incitement with verbal incitement (disguised as objective news reporting!) Who writes these captions? Who supervises them?).

The BBC, as well as Reuters and all other news agencies, have a lot of soul searching to do. And it's going to get a lot more embarrassing as the blogs uncovers more scams. Time to clean house!

  • 24.
  • At 06:31 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Sjoerd Westerterp wrote:

To be honest I really have a hard time understanding what the fuss is all about. The fact the photographer in question indeed did an extremely lousy job of 'fixing' this photo only helps drawing attention to another given: MANY photos shown in newspapers, magazines, on websites and television are carefully doctored before they are used. Only most are edited with more professionalism and they never are unmasked as being semi-fake images. In wildlife, portrait, architecture, product, art and glamour photography it is unlikely more than 5% of the images used has not been seriously retouched. Considering the high stakes involved in news events photography it is naive to assume these techniques aren't being used widely. Just as some photos are only taken after careful composition. Is it fair to call these a representation of 'the truth' ?
Especially with today's digital photography the amount of time required to completely doctor an image isn't a lot, so images can still be sent to news agencies well within the required timespan.

(excuse me for my poor use of the English language and lack of typical British subtlety.)

  • 25.
  • At 06:32 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Brad Brzezinski wrote:

The technical explanation of how such errors can occur is interesting but it avoids facing the background reality of most media organisations being filled with left-thinking people. Their attitudes infuse the news in various ways, the most overt being an anti-US and anti-Israel slant. I suspect that these faked photographs are an indirect result of these attitudes.

In the 1967 six day war, for the first three days it appeared Israel was doomed because of the prominence given to what the Arab side was saying.

Watching & reading the reporting on this current set-to in Lebanon, nothing seems to have been learned.

  • 26.
  • At 06:34 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Cog wrote:

I think to be fully honest, you should state that the AP photo of the woman detailed on the blog resulted in the removal from the BBC.

There have been 3 American television reporters who have detailed strings attached to reports filed from Lebanon with Hezbollah's permission. One was threatened.

The extent of the MSM's look into the Qana photographs was to note that the time stamps on the photos does not equal when they were taken, but when they were filed. That is it.

It does not matter that video shows "aid workers" posing bodies on stretchers for photographers, that individuals handling the same bodies were photographed with multiple outfits on, and that photos showing the same individuals or same damage on a city block [with a caption saying it was a result of overnight raid] appear numerous times.

There was evidence of photo manipulation and staged photos in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and now in Lebanon. The more the MSM looks away to make a buck, the more their journalistic credibility is in peril. No matter how long they have been in business, and what talking head they stroll out to defend their organization.

The point is the MSM is selecting photographs for their emotive value, this means that not only is the media reporting news of actual events, they are adding an opinion.

That is bad enough, but when it becomes clear that some of those images are manipulated and/or some of the photo opportunities are being stage managed by Hezbollah that makes the situation much worse.

Especially when no health warning is given when they are shown.

The question needs to asked: are you reporting a news story or are you being amenable to a propaganda exercise.

  • 28.
  • At 07:35 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Matt wrote:

As a professional photographer and photography instructor, I think it is high time we let go of the myth of the photograph as truth. Photographs have never been viable sources of 'truth.' Even Henry Fox Talbott and Nicephore Niepce realized this when they invented the medium in the 1830s. Digital photography hasn't really changed much aside from forcing us to confront the ever present falsness of the medium itself. I think we are in the middle of a paradigm shift away from photographic credibility which, I believe, to be beneficial for everyone. It frees up photographers and artists to be more creative without this heavy burden of 'truth', while educating the public to be more skeptical of the images presented to us. Ultimately, a skeptical public should be less influenced by overt propaganda and advertising.

Chicago, IL

"It wasn't the same image, but conceivably could have been the same place and time."

Surely you can tell from the data on the pictures exactly when both pictures were taken?

Care to let us know?

  • 30.
  • At 09:33 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • PV wrote:

As an industrial/PR photographer and printer for some 20 years, I think I understand this problem quite well.
I feel very sorry for the Charlotte Observer photographer whom, it appears, had reasonable grounds to manipulate the image colour - a crime for which he was dismissed. Colour is a subjective element anyway and, had he been using colour film instead of a digital camera, I'm not sure the colour correction of the sky would have been worthy of comment. His dismissal seems a bit high-handed. The very process of recording an image onto a light sensitive medium (film or digital array) and processing it into something suitable for publication is a manipulation. Image cropping happens all the time and frequently changes the "meaning" inferred by the viewer.
What the information seeker should beware of is not image manipulation per se, because all images are manipulated, but the extent and intent of the manipulation. Does the manipulation change the picture's "meaning" in any way, particularly by omission, addition or emphasis? That's the question that should be asked every time. "Omission" includes cropping.

I'm just glad that there're some really obvious, extreme examples coming out to shake people's faith in the fictitious accountability of news agencies. The agendas are as simple as the opinions of the editors and the interests of the sponsors. Whether the goal is expedience, a 'scoop', sensationalism, propaganda, or just good old fashioned irresponsibility, every story is slanted. As a working journalist, the first thing I always tell people is 'forget what you know. Read a copy of Necessary Illusions and start recalibrating your media filter.'

  • 32.
  • At 10:19 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Alfred Leong wrote:

Gee, I will never look at news photos the same way again. What you see may not be what they are. I had assumed all along that photos are always genuine. Well, technology certainly has its drawbacks but am glad too that to me, BBC is still the standard bearer when it comes to objectivity and accuracy.

  • 33.
  • At 10:20 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • barend wrote:

It might be a good idea to add the name of the photographer to the photocredits. Same goes for articles from the big news agencies. For example: "Reuters - John Smith". If I were a journalist or a photographer I'd want the credit.

  • 34.
  • At 10:29 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Hugo wrote:

It's seems fair enough to swap a suspect photo illustrating a story, but why the 'stealth edit'? How come you don't update the "Last updated time"?

  • 35.
  • At 10:51 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Christopher Redford wrote:

Adnan Hajj is guilty of being lazy and very silly. But the code of photo-journalists' ethics is guilty of greater crimes. `Photo-shopping' smoke from a dropped bomb so it appears a little blacker is nothing serious when compared with some of the stomach turning photo-crops in the history of journalism. Cropping may highlight an aspect of a frame, but it has also been freely used to hide the amoral actions of photographers who posed/preyed upon the `real-life' of their subjects. Cropped images can be as bad as edited audio. What you don't see can make the photographer far more guilty of sin than lazy retouching.

  • 36.
  • At 11:11 PM on 08 Aug 2006,
  • Jerry wrote:

I think it's a good decision that BBC decided to get rid of this freelance photographer. If I had media company I don't think I would want to have such a third rate amateur photoshopper working for me, it's just embarrassing. The whole point of manipulating photos or editing them to suit your propaganda needs is so that you can achieve a believable end result - you either do it right, or don't bother.

There's more to photoshopping than the cloning tool people.

I am a senior graphic designer and I looked at the picture in question. The reason the guy got caught was because even a blind man could tell that the picture was altered. The guy use photoshop's ALT tool to duplicate the smoke ..

One needs brains to cheat :)
And trusting what .. i mean he just added more smoke that's all he did .. not a drastic change was it?

  • 38.
  • At 12:33 AM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

In what BBC laughably refers to as news, we've seen 2 million photos of a war in which about a thousand people have died in three weeks while in the war in Darfur, we haven't seen a thousand photos where over two hundred thousand died in three years. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. BBC, you get my vote as the most unfair and unbalanced news I receive in my home. If I weren't subsidizing it indirectly through my taxes which contribute to your contracts with PBS and NPR, I'd be a lot happier.

  • 39.
  • At 12:50 AM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Hettie wrote:

Thank you for taking time explaining the situation. I appreciate it a lot.

  • 40.
  • At 02:08 AM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Kara Tyson wrote:

I admit I have always been confused about this issue. Do people really expect to get a McD sandwhich that looks like the photo? What about Glamour magazine--these women have their bosom's enhanced and stretch marks and moles erased.

  • 41.
  • At 03:15 AM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Henry Bramlet wrote:

I have to say that this is one of the most lucid and forthright responses to the whole photo scandal that I have ever seen.

I am one of those right-of-center Americans who was disgusted by what I perceived to be rather aggregious examples of media tomfoolery in recent history.

But I have to say that Reuters was quick to respond to the discovery that photos were doctored and acted appropriately. Likewise, I think this post is a perfect example of how established media can show responsiveness to controversy as well as effectively demonstrate their point of view when making editorial decisions.

For what it's worth, I didn't feel that the Reuters photos really did anything other than make the pictures more dramatic (inserting more action than the photographer was actually able to capture). But even though they weren't pushing any political worldview, they were disingenuous.

Your treatment of this issue has shown me how heated, emotional topics can still be treated with gentlemanly conduct, and I must give the BBC credit where credit is due.

It appears as though the Beruit Reuters photographs are a case of wrongly captioning the images as a pose to altering the photograph itself, both of which are can be serious matters.

  • 43.
  • At 05:07 AM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • RU wrote:

"All this sounds fine until you look at the reality - one man’s colour balancing is another's grounds for dismissal."

One man's lie is another mans "news". Luckily for free thinking individuals "news" is dead. Your job has been outsourced to people who will take the time to scrutinize submissions for truthfulness.

  • 44.
  • At 07:02 AM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • adrianadesigner wrote:

Its sad that as observers photographers feel the need to add there own skew to the issue. The photographer in question orignal photo of the bombing in Beirut was dramatic enough for me, but to add more "bang" to the photo really makes one think about how many photos out there are dramatized for effect.

To some extent the presence of a camera will alter the event

I would like to learn more about this. I remember attending a demo in Brussels before the Iraq war - my photos - and I noticed that the pro photographers were behind the police lines and kept out of sight. Every now and then they all rushed forward and began taking photos. Whenever they did this the demonstrators went nuts and started screaming, throwing stuff etc.

Was it morally and ethically right for the photographers to keep doing this, as to me at least, they knew that each time they took photos the violence dramatically increased?

Clearly the issues around this are complex and I would welcome a general discussion on this.

  • 46.
  • At 09:40 AM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Paul Carpenter wrote:

I can't help but feel you're missing the point somewhat.

As journalists, your first (and indeed only) concern is with factual accuracy. This is especially true of the BBC, who are by charter degreed to give a fair and balanced account of events.

In this context, it is your absolutely your own responsibility in the first case to determine the veracity of reports. If no-one is there first-hand, as appears might be the case, then we - the viewers - must be told where the reports come from and if there are any caveats.

It is not good enough in a highly charged and volatile situation, where lives and nations are at stake to be told that "with so many photographers all shooting the same event, and filing many alternative pictures to their agencies, the sequence of events is hard to pin down."

If attaining these aims is hard or impossible we must be told that this is the case. If there are doubts we must be alerted to them. The problem I have, is that the BBC has settled into a cosy belief that because it's charter says that it is fair and balanced, and because many commentators echo this sentiment that it must be true. In the chorus of echoes you believe you have heard the truth.

The fact is that Hezbollah control the ground in large parts of Lebanon and that Western Media are simply not free to roam and investigate as they please. An organisation prepared to deliberately target civilian populations, whilst hiding among civilians itself is not going to have many scruples about exerting control over what the media is allowed to see. By presenting information obtained under such circumstances as if it is in some way equal to that received by reporters in a democratic nation state is disingenuous at best.

You can't dress it up as fairness or balance, I'm afraid.

"It wasn't the same image, but conceivably could have been at the same place and time"

But don't you see? Rather than simply swap out the photo in the story without even bothering to note this as an update - something that is standard practice in most reputable blogs - you have missed a whole new story.

As soon as this is brought to your attention - and I give even an organisation as large as the BBC the benefit of the doubt that you can't spot everything - you have a really juicy new story to put up instead:


Or, more likely,


Ask for the original raw camera images and check for yourself to find out which one it is.

Uncovering and calling out attempts by others to manipulate your news output would do wonders for your reputation, whilst simultaneously acting as a very marked disincentive for those who would try to dupe you.

The failure of the BBC to report the degree to which its coverage is restricted by Hezbollah is so marked as to make one think that it is deliberate.

Hi Michelle,

To keep track of blogs, we use a mixture of searches and feeds from Google's Blogsearch and Technorati.

As well as just generally keeping our eyes open for interesting things..

  • 49.
  • At 11:16 AM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • GP wrote:

Perhaps you could ask Phil Coomes to comment on why Reuters et al are accepting retouched images from Lebanon at all?

I can't see the justification for firing up PSD in the middle of a war zone to remove "dust" when metadata can authenticate the integrity of an image beyond doubt, permanently time stamp it and for those with the latest cameras, permanently geolocate it to a few hundred feet.

In fact, I suggest the Beeb should no longer accept agency images for this conflict without guarantees that the original image metadata (and specifically timestamp to allow analysis of timeline, even where a camera clock is set incorrectly) is available, especially as the online wisdom of crowds is finding more and more anomalies.

When I watch John Simpson report from the Middle East I am confident that what I hear is accurate. When I view photostreams from (effectively) anonymous stringers, I am reminded of photojournalists embedded with the Baghdad jihadis, cynically recording the murder of election workers.

Once the image is posted to trusted news like the BBC, the photographer's credibility becomes your credibility.

  • 50.
  • At 11:19 AM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Martin Audley wrote:

18. I hope you were joking about EU Referendum's "Director's Cut". The storyboard is not really there. It's their version of Photoshop irony you see? Or did I miss yours?

19. Misreading the photographer's name I typed Adrian Hajj. I should of course have typed Adnan Hajj.

20. Couldn't agree more. What a strange blog this is, where comments appear nearly a day later, so no near-live discussion is possible.

  • 51.
  • At 11:47 AM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • percy benjamin wrote:

A good Reputation is built on long years of hardwork/honesty/dedication/
One rash act destroys all that was achieved over the years,most all confidence in the news organization,by the the publc.
Corruption/biased reporting is the cancer of any news organization.
Now any/all photos of Reuters will suspected as FAKES & unreliable.

Does this mean that the picture I saw in an american tabloid recently, of Oprah Winfrey giving birth to a dolphin-alien on board a flying saucer, isn't authentic?

How irritating.

  • 53.
  • At 01:38 PM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • David Ward wrote:

Isn't it time that John Simpson investigated "Green Helmet" and "White t-shirt" of Qana fame...or would that cause too much embarrassment to the BBC's editors?

  • 54.
  • At 03:39 PM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • Gustavo Stickery wrote:

It is interesting many of the posts are citing issues such as dodging and burning and stating it to be legitimate (which it is). This is underplaying what has been happening which is deliberately altering images in order to change meaning. In the obvious case of Adnan Hajii, the smoke was not just "darkened" but literally cloned and added to other areas of the photo to amplify the the amount of smoke. This is called forgery.

As a scientist who works as a microscopist for a pharmaceutical company, I can say there is an easy way around this problem. All my images are stored as originals. I can make changes to fix defects in contrast, brightness etc. But always the original is still available. Photojournalists (and news agencies for that matter) should be required to do the same. "Fix" your images as you see fit, but alway have the original available for examination if a reader wishes to look at it. This would address some of the accusations and allow the consumer see what was going on. I personally would like to know what is being cropped and removed from my field of view (in addition to what is being cloned).

Hello - in response to some of the points above...

Michelle (comment 7):
We keep an eye on blogs and use blog searches but we don’t have a particular system for doing it – or a team of interns. Monitoring blogs has increasingly become part of what our journalists do. Incidentally we published a story today looking at the role of some of the blogs covering the Lebanon crisis

Miika, (comment 10):
We look at pictures sent in by readers carefully, checking for any obvious signs of manipulation. We’ll also get back to the individuals who sent them to check on the details and ask any questions we need to in order to satisfy ourselves the image is what it says it is

Max, (comment 13), Martin (comment 19) and Hugo, (comment 34):
Our policy is to correct anything in our coverage which is inaccurate as soon as we are aware of it. In this case the picture may well have been fine but we couldn’t check immediately so we simply changed it for a more recent one. We don’t track every change made to a story - they get updated, in some cases, almost continuously on a busy news day and logging every change would make for very tedious reading. But I mentioned it here because one of the reasons for having this blog is to allow editors to shed some light on the problems we encounter and explain some of the decisions and changes we make. That’s what I did here.

On the last updated timestamp - we could certainly change this so that every single change in a story generated a new timestamp - the drawback would be that even if a journalist went into a story and changed, say, some punctuation or a spelling error, the whole story would acquire a new date stamp and look newer than it actually was. But if we are making a major change to a story which we think significantly updates or changes it, we do update the time stamp.

Dave (comment 21):
We write the captions for our pictures ourselves, basing them on the information that accompanies the images provided by the agencies filing them

Bishop Hill (comment 29):
We didn’t use the Reuters picture so do not have the details. The AP one we used clearly stated that the picture was of a Lebanese woman in Beirut on Saturday 5 August, which AP have since confirmed to us.

In response to John's comments above..

There was a delay in posting responses to this blog yesterday, and we apologise for that.

We do pre-moderate this board, and we do our best to publish your comments as quickly as we can - but at the minute we're getting so many responses it may take a little bit longer on occasion.

Separately, we do have some technical problems with comments on occasion - see here for more on that.

Thanks for the earlier response.

Your comments re the BBC's policy on changes to reports is interesting. Don't you think that publishing a picture of dubious provenance is significant enough to report to your readers? As other commenters have noted, this is the minimum expected of us amateurs.

It looks a little as if you are trying to hide this kind of error otherwise.

I must say though it's very nice to have a response to one of my comments here. It's the first time, and not through lack of trying on my part.

While you are being so forthcoming, does the BBC intend to say anything about the now legendary "green helmet man" who keeps appearing all over Lebanon. Presumably one of your journalists over there must know who he is.

  • 58.
  • At 04:41 AM on 10 Aug 2006,
  • stephanie gutmann wrote:

No, I enjoy photographs but do not trust them for crucial information.

When you look at a photo or even at news copy, one is looking at a series of choices--made by human beings, all acting out (whether they know it or not) biases about what "the story" is about.

According to my photography teacher (and his comments about the medium came up in a completely apolitical context) photos are the "most subjective medium in the world." That's because there are so many variables. Starting with the shooter: there's angle, depth of field, color balance, type of lens, cropping, and of course, which of a string of photos about the same incident best expresses that incident.

Then come photo editors, who again make choices about which photo illustrates their conception of "the story. They make selection decisions and cropping decisions. Then come layout editors who can decide where to put the photo, how big to size it, and copy editors who write the captions (which are, in my experience, often error-ridden.) For the mega example of that see the shot of the bloody man at the feet of the armed man which went around the world in the fall of 2000 captioned "Palestinian man and an Israeli soldier on the Temple Mount." In fact, it wasn't the Temple Mount (which anyone taking any care could have deduced from the cars in the background), and it wasn't an Israeli soldier, and the bloody man was a Jew who had just been nearly beaten to death by an Arab mob.

My photography teacher says he once told his students to photograph an incident or subject. One photo was supposed to persuade or elicit some emotion, the other was supposed to convey the scene "neutrally." His students found they could not convey anything neutrally because they recognized that photo-taking is a series of decisions, a series of choices, each choice advantaged one "side" or the other.

You're in a subjective business! You know it; we know it. The only honest way to go about it is to preface your reports by saying "Based on our imperfect investigations, shaky background knowledge, and neccessary obsesciene to who's ever controlling photo access today, this is the story as we know it."

  • 59.
  • At 11:09 AM on 10 Aug 2006,
  • Gregory Simpson wrote:

The BBC coverage of the conflict in the Middle East is laughable at best and most certainly not in the highest traditions of journalistic accuracy and unbiased reporting. The BBC (and MSM in general) loses more and more of it's credibility each day by choosing to show and report events tainted by the personal opinion and bias of your "on air personalities" rather than letting the facts speak for themselves. Showing faked photos and video footage staged and directed by the terrorist propaganda specialists of Hizbullah are symptomatic of this loss of credibility. Apparently, Israeli citizens agree. And, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is considering a boycott of BBC news and looking into withdrawal of BBC reporter "credentials."

Fortunately, the public may now make use of a wide variety of internet resources and fact-checking blogs in an effort to arrive at some semblance of the truth. The BBC would not be missed in the least.

  • 60.
  • At 11:24 AM on 11 Aug 2006,
  • Robert wrote:

Gregory - lots of governments around the world don't like the BBC and it isn't because the reporting is inaccurate. Quite the opposite.

  • 61.
  • At 04:25 PM on 18 Aug 2006,
  • Poyan wrote:

To Gregory Simpson #59

It is funny to hear pro-Israelis whine about Hizbullah's propaganda and censorship as they proudly admit that Israel is planning on banning the BBC and has banned many news orgnaizations before it.

Can you right-wingers even spell "freedom of press"?

  • 62.
  • At 06:59 PM on 19 Aug 2006,
  • Richard wrote:


This is not 'the press' - this is a publisher of fiction. The BBC is telling lies. In fact Israel is no going to ban them, but would be justified due to their disgraceful coverage. Note that Israel has made no suggestion of banning other news organs. With freedom comes responsibility, and the BBC has not behaved in a responsible way over Israel for as long as I can remember.

As for the original article - "one man’s colour balancing is another's grounds for dismissal"? It is deeply offensive to try and compare the widespread faking of photographs (I know of at least 6 series that were in some way compromised) to the colour changes on a single image that did nothing to change it's meaning.

The so-called "fauxtography" issue is important. The BBC is caught up in it, having used staged or altered images. They have yet to address it!

The doctored photo is so clearly doctored I wonder if it wasn't a deliberate plant. But then, how could anyone expect a reputable organisation with any sort of editorial process at all could let it through?

The only explanation I have is that the result of 'manipulation' - in fact, very bad use of clone-stamping - so supported the editorial line being pushed that the clear fact of a lie was ignored.

  • 64.
  • At 11:12 PM on 21 Aug 2006,
  • garypowell wrote:

It is people like Poyen who give the game away for the BBC. Their stark honesty betrays what this issue is all about. Dodgy photos and agenda setting, the lot. He for example equates criticism of the BBCs reporting standards with being right-wing.

This is an issue of international politics right v left. Or how I prefer to see things right v wrong.

The BBC is seen, by the radical and authoritarian left, as ITS own broadcaster. The only serious competition to Rupert Murdock and the great capitalist Zionist conspiracy.

The BBC is making friends in some, very load and radical places, that will now fight like dogs to preserve the BBCs liecence fee.

I think right thinking people, which ever political party they vote for, now know which side the BBC is on,IMHO also, it is not theirs.

It is unfortunate that the MSM, in every mea culpa they write, continues to make excuses for their complicity with the intentional propaganda of terrorist organizations, particularly when we know that the media in the Arab world won't provide a similar bias in favor of the US, Britain, and Israel.
This reminds me of why environmental groups during the Cold War would only demonstrated against the environmental damage of western countries and not the much greater damage caused by the Soviet Bloc countries: because they knew the tyrant governments didn't need to worry about public opinion when they ruled through fear and force.

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