Sun, Aug 20, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Truth and rumor in the photo doctoring debate

After a blogger revealed that a mainstream news agency was using images doctored by a freelance photographer, new media has confronted the old over who and what to trust

The symmetrical plume of dark smoke rings rising from bombed Beirut just did not look right, and it was not long before bloggers were tipped off that the dramatic Reuters picture featured "cloned" smoke as well as the real thing.

Charles Johnson, a US blogger, broke the story on his Little Green Footballs site. It was another scoop for the man who uncovered the faked memos used in the CBS story about US President George W. Bush's military record, which led to the resignation of legendary anchorman Dan Rather.

This time, there was a sacking. Reuters admitted the picture had been doctored and its editorial guidelines violated, and swiftly dispensed with the services of the photographer, Adnan Hajj, a Lebanese freelancer who had served the news agency for a decade.

The controversy appears to be another case of bloggers setting the mainstream news agenda and shining a light on dodgy journalism.

Are Hajj's two doctored photographs the tip of the iceberg? Sceptical bloggers certainly think so in the case of the Israel-Lebanon conflict.

Doctored or staged pictures are as old as the medium itself.

"This all started with Chairman Mao and `non-people' but you needed a top artist to paint them out. Now with Photoshop, you can get people who can do it who aren't artists. Anyone can do it after half-an-hour's training," says Eamonn McCabe, a former picture editor.

"We've always believed in photographs as truth. Now I don't think the readers do. They have a healthy mistrust of everything they see. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing," he says.

Right-wing bloggers in Britain and the US want to prove that, as Richard North of the EU Referendum blog argues, the mainstream media are swallowing Hezbollah propaganda, serving up staged pictures of those rescuing the dead and badly injured as the real thing.

At first, they suggested victims of the Israeli bombings were being carried around and posed for pictures because of different time-stamps on photographs reproduced on news Web sites. An Associated Press (AP) photo was time-stamped 7:21am, showing a dead girl in an ambulance. Another AP picture by a different photographer, stamped 10:25am, showed the same girl being loaded on to the ambulance. A third, with the time 10:44am, showed a rescue worker carrying the girl with no ambulance nearby.

Three agencies -- AP, AFP and Reuters -- denied staging pictures at Qana. And the explanation for the different times was simple.

Different Web sites, such as Yahoo, put their own time-stamps on photos they receive from news feeds; and AP does not distribute photos sequentially but on their news value and how quickly they are sent in.

Kathleen Carroll, AP's senior vice president and executive editor, added: "You can't get competitive journalists to participate in the kind of [staging] experience that is being described."

Have amateur bloggers really got the tools to decipher what is right and what is not?

As Shane Richmond, news editor of Telegraph.co.uk, pointed out on his blog, jPeg, compression -- reducing the file size of images so they can be used on the internet -- causes the "smudging" that bloggers alleged was a doctoring of photographs.

North continues to stand by his main argument -- that pictures at Qana were staged -- but admits the inconsistencies over the time-stamps proved to be irrelevant. Another point that Richmond knocked down -- that one Qana helper changed his T-shirt, implying there was no sense of urgency about the rescue bid -- was, North responds, a minor claim.

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