5 tips for getting photo IDs right

Mistaken identifications are among the most common photo errors I see corrected by the media. People in photos have either been mislabeled internally or by a photo or wire service, or someone hasn’t checked the image to verify it’s showing who they think it does.

A case in point: this Monday correction in The Independent

In our print edition of Friday 3 February we ran a photograph of an actor named David Bradley under the heading “stars who have slipped.” We very much regret that we used a photograph of the wrong David Bradley and that the David Bradley we pictured is still enjoying a highly successful career, including playing Argus Filch, the caretaker in the Harry Potter films.

This is a bit tricky, as the photo was in fact of an actor named David Bradley — it was just the wrong David Bradley.

Then there are other photo mistakes that on their face seem less clear and forgivable. Here’s a February correction from The Daily Mirror:

DUE to an error in yesterday’s report concerning the fatal shooting of Alan McNally, the photograph on page 1 purporting to depict the late Alan McNally was in fact of another man who is not involved in any of the matters referred to in the report.

We apologise for the error and for any confusion caused as a result.

We are happy to correct the position.

Or this January apology from the same paper:

ON Friday 30 December 2011, as part of an article concerning a drugs test investigation at Hull FC, we published a picture of a man we said was Ben Cooper who has been suspended for his role in the affair.

In fact the picture was of Stuart Donlan, the assistant coach of Castleford Tigers, who has never been involved in any way with any drugs testing incident. The photo was supplied by an agency. We offer Stuart Donlan, his family and friends our sincere apologies.

These errors are embarrassing for the press, and they cause people to suffer shame and disrepute. I offer a few tips below for how journalists can avoid misidentifying people in photos. I’d also love to hear advice from photo editors and other journalists. Please add your tips to the comments and I’ll update this post with additional advice.

1. Compare the image to other samples. One way to avoid mislabeling or otherwise misidentifying an image is to compare it with other photos of the same person, place or thing. If the photo is from your archives or staff, compare it to similar shots from agencies or other news organizations. This is especially important when identifying people accused of a crime or wrongdoing, or people who have died. The same goes for images of unfamiliar locations.

2. Verify the caption. Often the photo has been labeled correctly in a database, but an error is introduced when adding or editing a caption. It’s a good idea to check the caption against the entry in a database/archives. That means it’s important to maintain a clean archive. (My final tip can also help with this.) Along the same lines, don’t assume an archival label is correct. See if other images in the archive with the same label/caption match up, and also remember to compare to outside sources (tip #1) to uncover discrepancies.

3. Check with the reporter. If the accompanying story was produced by one of your staffers, quickly show her the photo to ensure it’s of the person she saw/interviewed, or of the correct place/product. Always take advantage of firsthand knowledge when it’s available.

4. Maintain an internal list of tricky pics. Maybe there’s a local official that shares a name with a celebrity, criminal or another person likely to be in your photo database? Maybe your news organization has trouble distinguishing between a prominent father and his son? Every beat and community has its share of problematic photos. As a result, it’s important for photo and copy desks to maintain a shared and regularly updated list of the people and images they are prone to mistake. One way to ensure the list is regularly consulted is to have one person tasked with collecting new submissions and sending them to team leaders of all relevant parties. From there, people can email/print out the latest copy and keep it on their desks. (Or better yet, taped to their monitors!)

5. When you find an error, fix it. Internal archives can be a constant source of error if you don’t follow up and help fix mistaken entries. Create an internal process to ensure mistakes are corrected in archives. This could mean designating one person to the job, or working with your library/archives team if you have one. Whenever possible, add annotations to the archival entries for those aforementioned tricky pics in order to remind people to double-check that it’s actually the photo they intend.

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