When is a photo of a crying girl not a photo of a crying girl? News photography in the age of truthiness
The issue of picture provenance and authenticity in news photography raised its head again in the form of the face of a young girl. The Daily Mirror ran a feature on the growth of food banks in the UK, supported by the image of a crying girl. It turns out the tears were not caused by hunger but from losing an earthworm she had adopted. It was a Flickr image from 2009 with the caption explaining the girl’s tears as she saw the invertebrate propelling itself into the distance.
The response in the mainstream media have condemned the cover while offering some rationale for the decision, no doubt due to the gravity of the story The Daily Mirror was pursuing on their front page. Here’s a quick summary of viewpoints.
Tools of Persuasion
Andrew Brown who regularly writes on religion for The Guardian newspaper takes the view that exposing the growth of Food Banks in a wealthy country like Britain would have been better served by an image of a genuine child. But he argues that rhetoric and the tools of persuasion are at the heart of language.
“It is fundamental to the nature of storytelling and of language itself that one thing stands in for another. Metaphor is not a garnish we put on facts. It is the thing that makes language possible and so, in a sense, the thing that makes “facts” possible at all. The whole skill of communication is to make the other party jump to conclusions unwarranted by the evidence and this need not be sharp practice at all.”
Roy Greenslade, Professor of Journalism at the City University of London and regular writer on media for The Guardian gathered some responses including an email from Daily Mirror editor Lloyd Embley who wrote sardonically, “And there was me thinking a million food parcels was the story.”
Then Embley added “It’s a picture of a crying child made available to Getty [Images] for them to use and distribute through their library, which we used for illustrative purposes. Imagine the stink if we’d used a pic of an actual child who had received food parcels.”
In The Independent newspaper, Ian Burrell wrote, “I have some sympathy with the Mirror. The poverty issue is a real one – and no doubt there were genuine tears this morning from kids pained with hunger in contemporary Britain. But trying to take a picture of a crying hungry child with the consent of parents who might feel in some way responsible for that hunger is an assignment that would challenge any news photographer. It’s the sort of picture that might result from the kind of long embedded investigation that the media rarely has the resources for these days.”
One might add to Burrell’s observation that as mainstream media budgets get cut, perhaps sending a staff photographer out to have look is not an option, the photographer’s craft (like any other craft) is often a function of time –
researching, making, editing. Perhaps the front pages of popular newspapers heavy with celebrity have blurred the notion of ‘news’ itself. And ethics issues aside, perhaps it just wasn’t a good solution in the absence of real documentary footage – perhaps the use of an archive shot of a child from the 1930s highlighting the return of a world we thought we’d moved beyond might have done a similar job.
And just as the notion of news is extended, stretched, blurred by the mash of our social media sign-ups, maybe the cover is an example of what comedian Stephen Colbert coined as ‘truthiness’. Back on the premiere of his show in 2005 he explained parodcially, “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. Because face it, folks, we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats or Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided by those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart…
….Now I know some of you may not trust your gut…yet. But with my help you will. The ‘truthiness’ is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news…at you.”
The use of the photo of the girl crying wasn’t a ‘true’ image, but it was probably ‘truthy’.