Combating misinformation in photojournalism

Manipulated and 'deepfake' images are on the rise, but how much of a threat do they really pose? Three industry experts give their views.
A French Foreign Legion soldier, in full uniform, sleeps sitting up inside an armoured vehicle.

A French Foreign Legion soldier from the Operation Barkhane Counterterrorism Force sleeps inside an armoured personnel carrier during a mission to hunt down Islamic militants in Mali in February 2020. Finbarr O'Reilly says photojournalists embedded with the military are often stopped from taking certain kinds of pictures such as images of their own side's soldiers killed in battle. "Misinformation can come in many forms and sometimes it's about preventing pictures being taken," he says. Taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/125 sec, f/3.5 and ISO1250. © Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times

Spreading misinformation through photography is almost as old as the medium itself, and there are many historic examples of images being staged or altered as political propaganda or otherwise. The digital age, however, has seen the practice reach new heights, with image editing and 'deepfake' technology becoming increasingly widespread and sophisticated.

Today, through the internet, false or misleading information can be spread globally within seconds. Images can be digitally altered or used out of context to support a political narrative. At its worst, fake news can be used to sway elections, divide society and attempt to alter historical facts. But how serious a problem is misinformation in photojournalism today, and what safeguards can be put in place to stop it?

We invited three influential industry professionals to share their views: South Africa-based news photographer and Canon Ambassador Gulshan Khan, winner of the 2020 HIPA Emerging Photographer award; Thomas Borberg, photo editor-in-chief at Danish daily newspaper Politiken and jury member for several major photography competitions; and Irish/Canadian photojournalist Finbarr O'Reilly, also a Canon Ambassador and a regular contributor to The New York Times, as well as a two-time World Press Photo winner.

Here Gulshan, Thomas and Finbarr offer their insights into this increasingly important topic.

A headshot of Canon Ambassador Gulshan Khan, her face bathed in a red glow.

Gulshan Khan's photojournalism focuses on social justice, human rights, identity and culture. She is a National Geographic Explorer and contributor to Everyday Africa. © Amr Alfiky

A black and white headshot of Canon Ambassador Finbarr O'Reilly.

Photojournalist Finbarr O'Reilly has covered major international conflicts and humanitarian disasters, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.

Is misinformation in photojournalism a growing problem, and is it something you're concerned about?

Gulshan Khan: I think it has always been an issue – it's been done for generations for political gain. Images tell people how to think. If images are distorted or manipulated, and used for propaganda, especially to perpetuate injustice, this is a massive problem. Even more problematic than this, however, is when we stop believing anything even when it is the truth. I think this is more dangerous. My recent coverage of the unrest in South Africa showed that a lot of the violence that occurred between historically separated and unequal communities based on race, due to our legacy of apartheid, was spurred on by images and videos on social media, much of which is now deemed 'fake news' because images were used out of context and/or manipulated for propaganda and individual agendas.

Finbarr O'Reilly: Misinformation in general is something we're all concerned about as journalists. The point of journalism is to dig to the bottom of what's really going on. I don't know if it's a problem specifically in photojournalism, but certainly on social media we've seen big misinformation campaigns, whether that's manipulating video, creating memes or editing images to make them look a certain way.

Thomas Borberg: I think attitudes towards editing are a generational thing. Young readers don't ask me if it's allowed to retouch or edit your images, they ask how much is allowed. When I say that, at Politiken, you will be fired if you remove or add something to your images they are really surprised. Younger people are getting used to the idea that fake is the new normal.

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A side profile of Thomas Borberg; he is sat in front of a studio light with his hand resting on his neck.

Thomas Borberg has taught photojournalism and been an examiner at the Danish School of Photojournalism and a visiting lecturer at many universities. © Olivia Harris

Have you seen any particularly shocking examples of image editing or 'deepfake' technology being used to distort images?

Thomas Borberg: Yes, but nothing that we have published (I hope). I've seen different examples on the internet. It is out there. And especially when it's propaganda, when someone wants us to look at something in a certain direction, I think it's obvious.

Finbarr O'Reilly: There's a very famous case that occurred during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. A news agency had a photographer in Lebanon who was photographing Israeli air strikes on Beirut. In one image, he cloned in extra smoke to make an explosion look more dramatic and in another he cloned several extra flares into an image. This was soon discovered, and all the photographer's images were taken off the agency's site. There are examples of this happening with other news organisations and it is a problem.

An Ebola patient is treated in an isolation pod by three medics wearing medical gowns and face masks.

An Ebola patient being treated inside an isolation pod in the town of Beni in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo's North Kivu Province. "The point of journalism is to dig to the bottom of what's really going on," says Finbarr. Taken with a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.6 and ISO50. © Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times

Do photojournalists have any control over how their images are used once published online?

Gulshan Khan: As an independent producer and photojournalist, I have learned to be very careful who I choose to work with and to make sure that our values are aligned. But at the beginning of my career, when I worked for the wires, there was very little control over how my images were used. The most frightening example was when one of my images depicting children was used completely out of context to illustrate a different story online. Later I found a bot had 'written' the article and pulled the image off the wires.

Finbarr O'Reilly: In theory, you surrender all control of your images once they're in the public domain. Of course, there's copyright and so on, but in fact when you work for reputable media organisations, they have legal restrictions on how the images are used and how the captions are published. I personally have not had my images distorted in any way. There's nothing to say somebody can't screen grab or re-use an image in a way that's deceitful, but I have not experienced that myself.

How do editors and photojournalists identify and avoid misinformation?

Gulshan Khan: The first step, I think, is to be more rigorous with our understanding of issues that we are reporting on. We also need to seek as many voices as possible from various sides, rather than following the agendas of news agencies, governments or other parties who seek to control a narrative. This is not always easy, and sometimes control over our work is limited.

Thomas Borberg: Normally we avoid misinformation by using sources we rely on. And if in doubt then we don't use them. Every day people are submitting images we don't want to publish in any way, because we can't verify them.

Finbarr O'Reilly: A photo editor on a news desk needs to be able to spot whether an image has been manipulated. On the technical side, there are always forensic ways to look at images and determine through metadata, or other technological data, what's been done to an image. Also, there's an effort at the moment by Adobe to create a forensic trail on photographs that can be tracked exactly for this purpose.

Two woman cling onto each other bravely. One has a tear rolling down her cheek, but looks ahead resolutely, while the other partially hides her face.

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An overhead shot of hundreds of soldiers marching through the streets flanked by men carrying batons.

Thousands of captured Ethiopian government soldiers are marched under guard by Tigray Defence Force fighters through the city of Mekelle in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region on June 25, 2021. An Ethiopian general later suggested that the images were from a marathon race and had been digitally altered. "Hundreds, if not thousands of tweets disputed our reporting from Tigray," says Finbarr. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/250 sec, f/3.5 and ISO50. © Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times

Why is reporting the truth important to photojournalism and wider society?

Finbarr O'Reilly: If we're referring to straight news journalism, of course we have to try to get to the truth of what happened in a situation. If it were left to politicians to determine the historical record of an event, it would probably be very different to the way a photographer or journalist would see it. Photojournalism is about the importance of creating an accurate record of events, both in the moment for society as a whole but also in a historical sense.

Gulshan Khan: Images are informative and directive. They can be read by people who do not have word literacy, and this makes visuals a universal language. They tell people how to think, create and sway narratives, and are a very powerful tool. They can be weaponised. As I mentioned previously, the greater concern is when we no longer believe anything, even if it is the truth, because our minds have already been clouded with doubt.

Thomas Borberg: Reporting the truth is important because images help us understand the society in which we live. It's against this background that we make decisions, and because of that it's important for our democracy. So having this common storytelling through photography is actually a main part of the fundamentals that democracy is built on.

David Clark

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