Fact-checking: a word about pictures

The news business is about being first and accurate – or not wrong for long
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By Jonathan Spencer
Crisis Communications Manager
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Seeing news pictures showing the collapse of the Baltimore key bridge was extraordinary – the kind of news that leaves a print slow to fade from memory. Although in these times of overt fact-checking, with more reasons to check an image for original source or data trail, it’s doubtless headache grey for any picture editor.

The news business is about being first and accurate. Or not wrong for long. Any uncanny resemblance or coincidence are the other layers that fuel the fakes and conspiracies. These twists in the narrative, or with photoshop, only hamper and hinder fast and first reporting.

Reuters, tasked with verifying a dodgy AI Simpsons cartoon, may have soon seen through the clip claiming the show predicted the bridge collapse. But all of this frustrates being first – at a time when news resources are continually being cut and multi-tasking operations service multiple platforms to reach myriad audiences.

Isn’t it hard enough for outlets, verifying real footage, without news agencies needing to justify or dismiss a cartoon.

I mean, one image circulating on platforms show the Simpsons family watching the collapsing Baltimore bridge with a ship sinking. A comment posted points out Lisa’s 10 hair spikes (usually eight), and Homer having three hair curls (not two). Job done, surely…

Dare I risk a comparison with that other much scrutinised image… Thankfully, that royal storm in a tea-cup saw Kate (the princess of Wales) clarifying what was a clumsy botch using a photo edit app, after news agencies were verifying odd cardigan sleeves and paving alignment, or whether one bit of the photo was a cutout of another.

The inaccuracies matter: the issues of trust and the reputations risked (OK, so one family perhaps matters rather more than the other). But equally, we can argue how the hard-won reputation of news agencies is as much first among equals: quick to check and lightning-fast with corrections. There would just seem more of a need to put it out there. The ‘kill notice’ became a thing in itself – a crass phrase, but it is the shock alert for editors that is well noted.

The BBC has its branded output, often stating (painstakingly) what BBC Verify has done or hasn’t quite substantiated, but-we-are-telling-you-anyway. So that they can be first. So they can be trusted.

Verification is time consuming in a world where we can’t take the images we see at face value. Monitoring digital platforms for misinformation has become its own industry.

One of the first images from the 9/11 attacks was grabbed by a TV news camera a block or two away below the towers, where the camera crew is quick to react to the event and captures the first plane.

Or take that day in London, when a BBC crew was filming and turns to witness horses galloping past. Like across a movie set – some other Mission Implausible… Only they haven’t stopped the traffic… and the grey is covered in blood… Again, the reverse dichotomy, where we fast use our reason and rationale to understand what we are looking at. The eyewitness’s dilemma, where we don’t need to verify the image. However, a little context might help.

Meanwhile, back at the bridge, one hopes the FBI are less seized by the Simpsons. Cartoons and cutouts can be slim customers.

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