The venerable Reuters news agency was caught last week publishing a faked photo. There are at present several disturbing things about the incident and what it means for the future of news.
First, it wasn't the first time that such fakery has occurred in the so-called mainstream media, and the phenomenon doesn't seem to be random, as it might be if it were a simple mistake, or breakdown in the vetting process. The fabricated images always seem to have the effect, intended or otherwise, of propagandizing against the West (in this case, the state of Israel, in the other example, President Bush).
The second thing that was disturbing is that, also like the previous cases, it took bloggers to point out what should have been an obvious tampering with the photo. Are major media editors really that incompetent (which gets back, of course, to disturbing concern Numero Uno)? This last isn't an unreasonable question, given that this is the news agency that famously said that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
While Reuters deserves credit for immediately announcing to their distributors that the photo was questionable, and cutting off any further contributions from the (Arab) free-lance photographer who provided it, there is, actually, a third disturbing thing about it -- what it presages for the future.
Humans have short memories, and most people don't realize that the concept of photography as a component of a news story is only a century and a half old, introduced most vividly when Matthew Brady shocked the nation with grisly battlefield photos from Antietam in 1862, using primitive but, for the time, effective techniques. Prior to that, newspapers were the media, and if they had visuals at all, they were sketches, inked into the story from carved stamps. Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal still employs modern versions of this, at least on its front page.
But photos have, rightly or wrongly, in fact become one of the means by which we now judge whether a news story is credible. Just as juries -- mistakenly, given the reliability -- accept eyewitness testimony as more important than circumstantial evidence, we believe that cameras don't lie. And in the age of analog photography, generally speaking, they don't.
But we no longer live in an age of analog photography.
The "fauxtography" in question in the Reuters case was of the digital variety. In fact, it would not have been possible to "clone" a part of the picture into itself -- which was what was done in this case, to make Israeli bombing seem more comprehensive and worse than the original lens revealed -- in the old analog film days; or, at least, it would have been much more difficult. The photo has been characterized in various new outlets as "photoshopped," (a description that the Adobe company is likely as upset about as when the Xerox or Kleenex companies hear their name used in a generic manner, as a "copy" or "facial tissue," respectively.) That doesn't mean that the fauxtographer literally used the Adobe Photoshop program to modify the image, though he may well have, because there are numerous programs available that would do the job well enough. In fact, people who use the Linux operating system usually get a Photoshop clone (called, for arcane reasons, "The GIMP") with their distribution, for free.
Which should be even more disturbing.
When every picture is no longer a negative that can be handed over to an authenticator, but is rather a pattern of bits on a memory card, manipulation becomes not only possible, but inevitable. While the cases of Rathergate and this latest anti-Israel propaganda were crude and easy to spot -- at least by people who weren't professional news editors -- it won't be so easy in the future, given the way the technology is advancing, in both ease of use and availability.
The photographer in this case was sloppy, either because (a) he didn't know what he was doing (likely), and/or (b) didn't think that his editor would be sufficiently burdened with clue to notice (sadly, quite possible, and a reasonable guess, given the fact that it took the blogosphere to reveal it) and/or (c) thought the editor would share his agenda, and not mind that much, if (again, the cluelessness bit comes in here again) no one else would notice (sadly, this scenario is all too plausible as well).
But what if the photographer was as good with photoshop as the web professional who exposed him? What if he knew how to fake the photo in such a way that it would not only be not obvious, but difficult to discern that it was a fake? As tools advance -- and the recent spate of CGI movies from Hollywood and other film centers should demonstrate this explosion of technology -- and people, including unscrupulous and ideological people, learn to use them, it will in fact be much more difficult to know whether or not a published picture accurately represents the event that it purports to show.
How, then, to know if a published photo is, in a paraphrase of the old commercial, real, or Memorex?
There are no obvious easy solutions to this problem, other than the traditional ones for validating evidence -- chains of custody. Press photographers could be required to use certified cameras that time stamp pictures in an encrypted way that doesn't permit modifying the stamp. They could go to accredited image processors who would verify the validity of the original picture from the camera (perhaps even uploading it to a certified notary storage site), and describe any image processing they performed, at risk of loss of accreditation if they pull any funny business. This would, of course, come at a cost, in both dollars for the intermediary and (more importantly for the news business) timeliness. Unfortunately, in the wake of this and other news bias scandals, any news organization that doesn't pull in the reins on its stringers and freelancers, and implement a solution like this, is going to suffer in credibility as time goes on.
And of course, it's not just an issue for the MSM. If the blogosphere wants to continue to build its own credibility, and self-publish home-grown photos (and videos) as part of its own increasing range of reporting, it will have to institute similar measures. Like many problems, this may in fact represent an enormous market opportunity.
Rand Simberg is a TCS Daily contributor. Find more of his writing here.