National Press Club

What’s real? Panel at Club probes ‘fauxtography,’ fake news

June 13, 2017 | By Noel St. John | nrs@noelstjohn.com

Sam Stewart (left), media technologist, and Santiago Lyon, former vice president and director of photography at The Associated Press, discuss fake photographs and news at the National Press Club June 12.

Sam Stewart (left), media technologist, and Santiago Lyon, former vice president and director of photography at The Associated Press, discuss fake photographs and news at the National Press Club June 12.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Not only are fake news stories a problem on popular and social media, but so are fake photographs, a panel of experts said in a wide-ranging examination of both at a June 12 discussion at the National Press Club.

Opening the session, panel moderator Mickey Osterreicher, lead counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, displayed an image of a man mowing his fenced yard while a tornado touched down in the neighboring field. “Is it real?, Osterreicher asked.

The image was real, said Osterreicher, but many photos are not, he said, citing them as examples of “Fauxtography.”

One tool to combat photographic dishonesty, said Osterreicher, is the NPAA’s code of ethics, which calls for “faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand.” Osterreicher showed a series of images that had been manipulated and in some cases led to the firing of the photographer.

Margaret Sullivan, columnist at The Washington Post speaking of both both news and photographs, noted her disdain for the term “fake news,” saying that it has become "weaponized." She called out President Trump’s use of the term to disparage unfavorable stories and press coverage he does not like.

Santiago Lyon, who served as vice president and director of photography of The Associated Press from 2003 to 2016, noted that the use of the term “fake news” is appearing in everyday speech. “It has become part of the vernacular,” he said.

Sam Stewart, a journalist and media technologist, also voiced his disdain for the term and said that people use it to discount opinions and viewpoints with which they don’t agree.

During the Obama administration, Stewart said, the White House began using the president’s official photographer exclusively in closed press situations. Stewart said that photographs can be staged that are not truly representative of events and can lead to government propaganda where free and fair reporting of a newsworthy event isn’t occurring.

Lyon, noting the negative connotation of the term propaganda, defined it as something that is released to propagate an idea. Lyon said propaganda is seen every time there is curtailment of independent media access and official pictures are released to propagate a version of events.

He said that use of propaganda photos during the Obama Administration increased to an unprecedented degree. Other media organizations around the world took their cues from the example set by the Obama administration and similarly began restricting access to reporters.

“We’re seeing a little bit more access, curiously enough,” Lyon went on to say about the current administration. While the White House is still releasing official photos, they appear to be shot on smart phones by staffers rather than professional photographers.

However, Bill Anderson, director of News Content & Operations for Sinclair Broadcast Group, said he has experienced less access to state and federal government officials. “We’re getting less and less access and more and more spin,” he said.

Sullivan expressed concern that the rhetoric used by the Trump administration licenses other levels of government to disdain and abuse members of the press. As an example, she cited the recent incident of an incoming U.S. Representative from Montana physically assaulting a reporter from The Guardian.

The event was sponsored by the Club’s Journalism Institute and Professional Development Team.