COMMENTARY: A New York Times Picture Worth A Thousand Lies

A serpent slithers in the Fourth Estate's Garden of Eden, and it has been selecting from the best fruits of photojournalism to lure gullible readers into consuming fake news.

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, Albany Times

A serpent slithers in the Fourth Estate's Garden of Eden, and it has been selecting from the best fruits of photojournalism to lure gullible readers into consuming fake news.

Pope Francis related the fateful Garden of Eden account in his annual social communications message on Jan. 24 _ focused this year on "fake news and journalism for peace." Francis calls for journalists to recognize how it's "not just a job, it is a mission" to stem fake news. Not surprisingly, The New York Times' Jason Horowitz, in his reporting, poked at pontiff's media criticism metaphors. But Francis' exposition is absolutely on point. I'll explain how a Times photo, as an accelerant, has been used to fan the flames of disinformation.

The fake story, "Obama signs executive order banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schools nationwide," appeared on a site, now offline, that mimicked ABC News in 2016. It featured a crisp, well-composed signing ceremony picture with President Barack Obama and supporters around him. The story was debunked _ ad nauseam _ by Snopes and other fact checkers that rat out bogus stories. But no one apparently discovered that the photo was stolen from The Times until UAlbany journalism student Cara Cliffe and I exposed it last spring.

The caption under this picture listed "Dennis System" as the Associated Press photographer. Anyone who has watched the sitcom, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," knows this is a guy's guide for seducing women. The Times' Stephen Crowley is the real photographer who recorded Obama's signing of an ethics bill, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, on April 4, 2012.

So now that we've set the record straight, it's game over, right? Wrong. The misappropriation of Crowley's photo continues on many other sites. Here's why The Times needs to care, and what readers need to know.

First, the mere inclusion of a picture with a contextually false premise will boost its credibility through a "truthiness effect." A group of cognitive psychologists in New Zealand and Canada who published findings of experiments in 2012 and 2015 suggested that photos "might help people generate pseudoevidence" to arrive at their conclusions. As an example, one participant was presented a claim and asked whether "macadamia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches." When the claim was paired with a macadamia nuts photo, the participant said, "I'm going to go with yes because they kind of look like peaches, so that would make sense."

Let's imagine how this scenario might play out in a research setting with The Times' Obama photo: "I'm going to go with yes it's true because Obama is at a signing ceremony and the headline, caption and story say he is banning the Pledge of Allegiance. So that would make sense."

Secondly, "Visual dominance is so powerful that visual input preempts all other sensory inputs," explains James H. Neely, UAlbany professor in the Cognitive Psychology Program. Eye-tracking studies and graphic communication principles reveal that "Seeing comes before words," as John Berger described in his classic book, "Ways of Seeing." Cognition and neurology studies reveal that a picture likely engages more than 85 percent of the functional capabilities of the brain _ and it all starts in 13 milliseconds.

In command of the senses, the photograph takes the lead in storytelling. Then, textual processing finally catches up as the reader begins to negotiate meaning in concert with the photographic image.

Thus, the potency of the photograph to reveal truth or to lie is in the hands of the journalism maker _ or faker.

Francis' reference to the "captious" ways these fake news stories exploit readers emotionally relates to my academic research about the contextual misrepresentation of photojournalism. My "Picture Prosecutor" site exposes cases of these online malpractices, not just with this one Times photo, but others from the Associated Press, Getty Images, Reuters, and stock image sites. And it's been going on long before fake news became a term.

Legitimate outlets like The Times need to take ownership of this abuse, and go after offenders as vigorously as companies defend trademarks like Xerox and Kleenex.

How can journalists wave the standard of truth while their own photographic content remains an offering of low-hanging fruit, giving the serpent more ease to deceive the public trust? If they ignore this, they take on the appearance of being morally complicit with the fake news operators they detest.

Francis draws from one of the world's oldest moral lessons to offer prescient guidance in the social media era. Stephen Apkon in "The Age of the Image" reminds us how the "magic of persuasion comes from the seductive quality of a pleasing image." Just like in the Garden of Eden, the choice is ours.

Thomas Palmer is digital media lecturer in UAlbany's Journalism program, and editorial design director and news editor at the Times Union. His blog is at https://blog.timesunion.com/pictureprosecutor/.

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