Tricks of the trade

Middle East | How far does journalistic fraud extend in reporting from Lebanon?

Issue: "Katrina: One year later," Aug. 26, 2006

Early this month one press service, Reuters, fired one photographer, Adnan Hajj, for doctoring photos so as to turn a defensive flare fired by Israeli planes into multiple missile launches, and to make smoke over Beirut larger and darker. But as August wore on, bloggers found repeated instances of Hezbollah news manipulation and staging of scenes-and even some writers and photographers for mainstream media sounded the alarm.

Among the examples of staged photography by Reuters, the Associated Press, and Agence France Presse that journalism schools and traditional textbooks see as unethical:

  • Photos of bombing sites with clean and undamaged toys and stuffed animals perfectly positioned in front of them for maximum poignant impact. It's possible that Mickey Mouse and others merely sprung up at those spots, but it's much more likely that their placement was the product of intelligent design.
  • Photographers moving other objects to more readily jerk tears. For example, many media outlets displayed a photograph of a mannequin with a wedding dress standing near the site of an Israeli air raid-as if an explosion that knocked down a building a few yards away would leave a mannequin standing but unnoticed by hundreds of rescuers and media members running around earlier in the day.
  • Photos of "rescue workers" that are actually shots of propagandists repositioning bodies for maximum effect, parading around with corpses, and instructing photographers what to shoot.
  • Photos two weeks apart showing the same Lebanese woman bemoaning the destruction of her apartment by Israeli bombs. The photos show her in front of two different buildings, leading one blogger to write, "Either this woman is the unluckiest multiple home owner in Beirut, or something isn't quite right."
  • Photo recycling with captions indicating that they show fresh destruction. Reuters recycled a photo of one Beirut building destroyed on July 18 so that it was supposedly destroyed again on July 26 and again on August 5.

Newspapers used many such photos and so did major magazines. The cover of the July 31 edition of U.S. News and World Report had a photo captioned, "A Hezbollah gunman aims his AK 47 at a fire caused by an explosion in Kfarshima, near Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, July 17, 2006." The magazine suggested that the explosion came from a shot-down Israeli aircraft hitting the ground. But bloggers showed that the photo was of tires burning in a garbage dump after a misfired Hezbollah missile hit them. An accurate caption would have read, "A Hezbollah PR man points a rifle for dramatic effect at a tire fire."

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One photographer, Brian Denton, acknowledged the problem: "I have been working in Lebanon since all this started, and seeing the behavior of many of the Lebanese wire service photographers has been a bit unsettling. . . . I have been witness to the daily practice of directed shots, one case where a group of wire photogs were choreographing the unearthing of bodies, directing emergency workers here and there, asking them to position bodies just so, even remove bodies that have already been put in graves so that they can photograph them in people's arms. These photographers have come away with powerful shots that required no manipulation digitally, but instead, manipulation on a human level, and this itself is a bigger ethical problem."

Columnist Dave Kopel, writing in the Rocky Mountain News, presented other vignettes of Hezbollah propagandists at work: "While carrying the bodies on a short path where the photographers are clustered, they wail copiously and cry in anguish, holding up the corpses for display. Before and after the 'camera run,' they display little emotion and treat the children's bodies callously. They make sure one rescuer completes his camera run before the next rescuer leaves the building for his own camera run. . . . While an interview is taking place, a couple of men carrying a body on a stretcher come around a corner; they set the stretcher down and wait for photographers to get in position before they pick up the stretcher and resume walking forward."

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times acknowledged the problem: Many photos "clearly are posed for maximum dramatic effect. There is an entire series of photos of children's stuffed toys poised atop mounds of rubble. All are miraculously pristinely clean and apparently untouched by the devastation they purportedly survived. (Reuters might want to check its freelancers' expenses for unexplained Toys R Us purchases.)"

Press organizations have commonly taken a hard line against photo manipulation. Last month The Charlotte Observer fired a photographer for changing the color of the sky in a picture of firefighters, and three years ago the Los Angeles Times also terminated an employee for photo manipulation in Iraq. But the response of press lords to the Lebanon revelations has been largely defensive so far, and some photographers have closed ranks. One photog, Damon Lee Perry, noted that many of his colleagues "don't wish to even entertain the thought that Hezbollah and their jihadi friends would dare commit fraud/media manipulation."


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