Fake News in mainstream media: my experience as a photographer and writer.

These days there is a lot of talking about Fake News on the internet, and Facebook announced the introduction of fact checkers. Is that a good thing? I feel ambivalent about it, here I explain why.

Public attention is now focused on social media and sites that publish hoaxes. Fake news on the net is really a big problem and something needs to be done about it. At the same time, the scandal seems to drive our attention away from an even more serious issue: mainstream media reliability.

Having worked in the information industry for over twenty years now, I know that what is offered as truth isn’t necessarily always so. Now that the tip of the iceberg has emerged, we have the great opportunity to question the accuracy and honesty of all sources of information. And we should. But the current structure of the information industry is not leaving us much hope…

Plastic Bottles Are Good For The Environment
A while ago I was discussing new topics to cover with the editor of a magazine. I proposed doing a feature on water and a number of related issues. I didn’t propose covering the controversy over privatization of water by multinational corporations or the related boycott campaigns, like the one that targets Nestlé, because that would have been too much for them. However, since several environmental organizations were talking about the hidden price of water, I suggested mentioning those campaigns.

The director grinned at me, stifling a laugh, and said something like: “You must be joking! You know how much money we get from water advertisers? Do something really useful, find a way to downplay the controversy and put bottled water in a good light. The best would be if you could prove that bottled water were somehow good for the environment.”

That report didn’t get done. All I managed to do — a few months later and for a different magazine — was a series of pictures of a model covered by droplets of water. The pictures illustrated an article written by someone else on the importance of using certain creams to hydrate the skin. I really enjoyed shooting those pictures but I still feel that readers might sometimes appreciate a wider range of information.

acqua — © enzo dal verme

Banned: those pictures might clash with the feminine ideal championed by advertisers.
A group of American women got together with the idea of redefining the concept of beauty. Men can be blond, brown, red, white and… bald. Why not women?

I photographed those bald women a few years ago in New York just as they were that day. No makeup artist, no hairdresser, no stylist, no lighting and… no Photoshop! I collected their stories too. Some of them had alopecia, some had been through chemotherapy, others simply liked being bald.

When I showed the pictures to my clients, every single magazine that saw the story (about twenty) refused to publish it for the very same reason: they felt the pictures might clash with the feminine ideal promoted by advertisers. (Well, in one case it was a more banal question of an underhanded competitor trying to plant their seeds in the field I had cultivated…).

Anyway, time passed and I kept trying with other magazines. “What will shampoo advertisers say?” someone commented. No way to publish the story. Mainstream magazines seems to have a preference for the Barbie-fication of women, it helps sell certain products. A group of women that want to redefine the concept of beauty is not the sort of content that furthers the interests of advertisers and their products.

Twisting the news to suit the editorial line
In Brazil I photographed and interviewed one of the rising stars of plastic surgery. He has a very peculiar vision on the matter and wants his clients not to look like they underwent a total makeover, but just more rested. A very light and short article. The fact that he is working with celebrities and writing a book on what he hears from his clients was considered “not enough”. The editorial line of that (very well known and respected) magazine is about unveiling dirty secrets. So my article was turned into the debunking of the plastic surgeon’s claims, shaming him. With my signature, of course.

Another time, my in-depth feature on a pretty challenging meditation school that mainly attracts psychotherapists (they seem to find answers not offered anywhere else) disappointed the editor-in-chief of the magazine that commissioned me to do the story. The people I photographed and interviewed were a bit too old for the magazine’s readership and he feared they could not identify enough with them. No problem, he added the interview of someone much younger and really in line with the average reader. Unfortunately that person was nonexistent. But where is the problem? Then all the real interviews didn’t have the same sparkling tone as the fake one. So he changed every interview and also added a sensationalistic title: “Everyone to the guru now!” He was happy. Sadly, at that point the article didn’t have much left of what I reported. Actually, it had turned into a huge lie.

I could go on and on listing other examples, but I think I have made my point.

What people find in mainstream media (or what they can’t find) is determined by the publishing company’s need to please the readers and — above all — the advertisers.

Organs of information are not necessarily there to inform, the majority of them are advertising vehicles and the editorial part is there to directly or indirectly support the advertised products.

I am not going to mention the pressure from political forces, nor the influence that the governments have on the press. Here I am just sharing my very own direct experience. But the mechanism is not so different.

Fact checkers will monitor the accuracy of information. Will they?
On any given topic there isn’t necessarily one truth only. There are facts and there are opinions on them. But even the mere way facts are reported makes a huge difference in how they are perceived and understood. In other words,

each piece of information (or misinformation) contributes to influencing and shaping our opinions in ways that we aren’t always aware of.

Now, let’s go back for a minute to bottled water. Ethicalconsumer published a well documented article that explains how:

- extraction leads to water shortages;

- transporting bottled water produces tons of carbon dioxide emissions and contributes to climate change;

- disposing of the packaging releases toxic chemicals;

- and much more…

Sounds pretty serious, huh? And there are so many other alarming figures reported by Food And Ware Watch or World Watch or Friends of the Earth and others.

The story of bottled water” is a really interesting video.

Still, mainstream media seem to have a strong preference for covering stuff like skin hydration creams rather than the truth on bottled water. Of course! Their aim is the dissemination of advertiser-friendly information.

The boundaries between news and advertising are increasingly blurred, but not everyone realizes how serious this is.

There are, indeed, magazines that did cover the plastic bottle issue or talked about the bald girls group. But those are exceptions. The norm is that news is selected and edited according to predefined values and objectives. For instance, the reportage that I shot in prison (here published in its unexpurgated version) could only be published after heavy “glamorization” because that was what that magazine was peddling.

The internet seemed to be the place where a wider range of data and reporting could find space. Now the fake news debate is warning us about the dangers of so much freedom. Apparently Facebook and many other sites could profit from misinformation, because sensationalism provides massive traffic. In response to the critics, Facebook says that they will introduce fact-checkers.

On one hand it’s really a good thing, but… I see a huge danger here. Once Facebook starts filtering what gets published, it’s very unlikely that they will upset their advertisers. In the same way, it’s very likely that sponsored/branded content will be presented as true. Are we anytime soon going to find articles on how “Plastic Bottles Are Good For The Environment”? It will be all the more swallowable with the approval of a fact-checker. Other points of view or investigative journalism might be labeled as fake news or conspiracy-theorist fantasies. And since most people using the internet seem to get their news mainly from Facebook, the impact on public opinion will be huge.

Not something I am looking forward to…


About the author:
Currently based in Milan, Enzo Dal Verme is a portrait photographer that has been working in the photography industry for over 15 years. His work has been published in Vanity Fair, l’Uomo Vogue, Marie Claire, Panorama, Glamour, The Times, Grazia, Madame Figaro, Elle and many other magazines. He recently published in the States the book Storytelling for Photojournalists
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