When the media reports fake news

People with cell phones are on the scene faster than news crews

Breaking News! At the local TV station, they roll out a microwave live truck, a reporter and photographer, light up the studio, get the anchors in place, and bring in the control room crew. 7 or 8 people, a million dollars’ worth of equipment, and 10–15 minutes later, you’re on the air with Breaking News. Yet… some guy with a cellphone just got the news out on Facebook about 10–15 minutes ago.

In order to speed that process up, most news organizations are using reader/viewer submitted photos. Since it’s getting photos from people right on the scene, why not? They’re usually there before our news crews can get there, right.

Here’s the problem.

How do you know whether the pictures are authentic? Really, anything someone submits to you that wasn’t done by your staff: how do you know it’s real?

The BBC used a photo of bodies lined up for burial to illustrate a massacre in Syria. It turned out to be from Iraq in 2003. At least they had the honesty to say they couldn’t independently verify the photo.

Here’s an iconic image reported by CNN as a police office in Venezuela facing off against a protester. Too bad it was taken in Singapore.

With the speed-to-post or speed-to-air being critical and getting first-mover advantage on a big news story, the temptation to just pass something on is great. Plane Crash! Here’s a picture from a witness about a mile away of the flames! Great, let’s post it! That happens in newsrooms all across the country.

This station in Memphis posted a picture of the riots in Baltimore. It sure looks like a big deal. Turns out it was a photo from 2,000 miles away and from Venezuela. It was also over a year old. I’m guessing maybe it was the McDonald’s that fooled them?

Research from the Pew Institute shows the majority of online users get their news from social media. Here’s a tweet from none other than Donald Trump. Someone sent the campaign this photo, which was re-tweeted. Now before you say, well it’s Donald Trump, think about this:

Could you do the same thing when someone sends you a photo or video seemingly portraying a significant event?

Turns out it never happened. The photo was actually from a family reunion and had nothing to do with Trump.

Don’t get me started on social media. But if you want to look at something fun, check out these 76 images - you probably saw some of them yourself - that were passed around social media that are totally fake. Many of them were also shared by legitimate news organizations.

Now some of the examples could just be “errors-made-in-the-moment.” But it’s getting harder and harder to tell what’s real and what’s not, especially with still photos. It used to be that doctoring photos was the work of professionals with high-end equipment and experience. Now, just about anybody can do it.

Same photo using Photoshop retouch tools — notice the missing cars, people and power lines?
Same photo altered using Photoshop tools in about three minutes

And more tools are coming everyday. This week, Photoshop announced another tool called “content aware cropping” to help all of us amateur photographers make our cell phone pictures better. The tool can “fill in” parts of the photo you may have missed.

You may say, what’s the big deal about taking a car or some water out of a picture?

For journalists, it is a big deal. The credibility of the news media is at an all-time low. Accuracy is key to rebuilding trust. Even photos that have minor details changed, removed, or enhanced — without disclosure — undermine that trust.

Who are the 15% that DON’T care about getting the facts right?

Should news organizations present photos that have been retouched? Should they disclose the information?

The job of a news organization is to present an accurate and fair depiction of events. Using an altered photo without disclosing the fact is unethical and undermines trust. In this day and age, people will figure it out and it will get posted in articles like this.

For the rest of us, the question becomes who can we trust and can we even trust our own eyes?

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the photo at the top of this page is fake.

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