When The Story Behind a Photo Turns up False

July 9 Update: The mother of the child discussed in this article fabricated at least part of her account of what happened, according to an Editors’ Note published by The Times Wednesday.

The Times reported that, in the course of inquiring about medical treatment for the child in recent days, the newspaper discovered that the problems with the baby’s legs were the result of the congenital deformity known as club foot — and not violence inflicted by supporters of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

The Times said at least one other witness confirmed the mother’s story of an attack by “marauding youths from the governing party,” and the mother stuck by her story that the baby had been thrown to the floor during the attack. But the paper said the mother acknowledged “misrepresented the boy’s injuries to generate help because she could not afford corrective surgery for the boy.” 

The Times appended the Editors’ Note to the June 26 article describing the events, and removed the photograph that originally appeared on Page One of the paper.

The nature of the injuries is not the only dimension of the story that’s been called into question. Both The Times of London and Newsweek said they had tracked down the mother and child in Harare. Both The New York Times and The Times of London described the baby as a boy. Newsweek said the child is a girl. 

Poynter Online is following up with the news organizations in pursuit of lessons learned. Our original article appears below.

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The photograph was a stunner. Displayed across four columns at the top of Page One of Thursday’s New York Times, the image showed a baby boy with casts on both legs, the apparent victim of the violence marking the presidential election in Zimbabwe.

In these times of mass video delivery and saturation of visual messages, this still image offered cause to pause. It demanded attention, insisting that readers and viewers not look away.

Because of the risks to both journalists and the subjects of their coverage in Zimbabwe, The Times did not identify either the photographer or the child and decided not to publish the photo on its Web site. (Poynter Online also decided not to publish the photo, and instead links to the image of Thursday’s front page published on nytimes.com. See updates below.)

Poynter Online asked Times picture editor Meaghan Looram to describe the decision-making that went into the photo’s publication. She said the photographer received permission from the child’s mother to publish the photo, which she said has generated “tremendous response” from readers. She said the paper is looking into how it might facilitate readers’ interest in helping the child and others in similar circumstances.

(June 30, 2008 update: Over the weekend, the photographer apparently began making the photo available to other news organizations, including The Times of London, which published the photo here.)

(July 1, 2008 update: In an e-mail to Poynter Online, Looram reported: “The boy and his mother have been moved to a nursing home, and he has been seen by a specialist at a private hospital. In light of the improvement in their safety and the distribution of the photograph to other news organizations, we are now posting the photograph along with the original article on nytimes.com.” As a result of those developments, Poynter has also added the photo to this page.)

Here’s an edited transcript of our June 26, 2008 e-mail Q&A:

Kenny Irby: This image is reminiscent of the classically iconic power of Kevin Carter’s 1993 image of the baby and the vulture from the Sudan. What is your reaction to this comparison?

Meaghan Looram: I first heard the comparison to the Kevin Carter photograph of the Sudanese girl from a colleague in the newsroom shortly after we had settled on the front page choices. The two photographs are heartbreaking and provocative. But aside from the broadest and most obvious parallels, for me the photographs are most similar in that they bear witness to a moment when a society’s most innocent and defenseless member is entangled in and endangered by an already catastrophic sociopolitical situation.

Unlike the girl in Carter’s photograph, this child was not documented while in imminent danger, but he bears the physical signs that his suffering has already taken place. That said, it is difficult to know how safe these refugees are and what lies ahead for them, in spite of the relative safety of their current location.

What can you tell share about the process? What happened first? When did you learn that this photograph was coming or did you see it first?

On Wednesday, I was not expecting photographs from Zimbabwe to be filed, and the foreign desk was not offering any story out of Zimbabwe. It was three days after Tsvangirai had dropped out of the presidential run-off and there were few daily developments. As the page one editor that day, I was simply manning everything in the incoming queue when I came across a series of images from this photographer. I was immediately drawn to them, not only because images out of Zimbabwe have been so scarce, but because these particular images were so strong. I was further compelled once I read the details of the captions.

As a picture editor, what was your role in the presentation process?

At that point I checked in with Jessie Dewitt, our foreign editor, to be sure these were daily images and not being filed for a future story. She had not expected them either and told me they were clear to use as daily images. I decided to include two of the photographs in my afternoon page one presentation, for which I had been preparing most of the day, in spite of the fact that there was no corresponding story offer from the foreign desk. I also showed photographs from Tsvangirai’s press conference that day during which he pressed the U.N. to take stronger action against Mugabe. Showing timely material which is nonetheless unrelated to specific front page offerings is not uncommon amongst the page one picture editors at The Times. We make an effort to keep editors aware of the reporting photojournalists are doing whether or not that work is directly tied to a daily story being filed.

This is an excellent example of complementary reporting in words and picture. Tell me about the construction of the caption and the header above the caption:

Suffering Great and Small
An 11 month-old boy with broken legs found shelter in a church in Harare, Zimbabwe. His mother said youths with the governing party shattered his legs while trying to make her disclose the whereabouts of her husband, an opposition supporter.

Who wrote that?

The elegant caption (and header) was written by Kayne Rogers, a copy editor on the foreign desk. In two lines, and with generous detail provided by the photographer, Kayne was able to concisely convey the complex story of this boy and his family’s saga, a task ever more critical when a free-standing photograph is published on the front page.

What is so different about this photograph from the others that you have seen in the ongoing Zimbabwe election coverage?

It has obviously become incredibly difficult and dangerous to work as a photojournalist in Zimbabwe, and as a result, the widespread reports of post-election violence have gone largely unseen. The scarcity of images documenting the current situation makes a photograph like this all the more powerful, and all the more tragic in its abrupt and concise revelation of the deteriorating situation there.

What are some of the issues you considered in deciding how you would use the photograph in the newspaper?

(Times executive editor) Bill Keller and (managing editor) Jill Abramson, who led the page one meeting that day, immediately responded to the images and suggested that we use the photograph of the boy at the top of the page. A fellow picture editor congratulated me the next day for what she assumed was a hard sell to the editors, but that was hardly the case. This was the clear choice and an easy consensus emerged amongst the group gathered. The only debate was over which frame to use (the other showed the boy in the arms of his mother) and this was a brief one. We were subsequently able to get enough details from the photographer to fill out the caption, and to include the family’s dramatic story in the daily Zimbabwe article inside.

The photograph does not appear to be posted on nytimes.com. Why not?

After some discussion, and in an effort to protect the identity and safety of the boy and his family by limiting the publication of the images, we decided not to publish the images on the nytimes.com website. We felt that his casts make him particularly identifiable, and in an atmosphere where savage political retaliation is so common, we decided not to risk further exposure.

What has been the reaction from readers/viewers?

This haunting image seems to have crystallized the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe for many readers. There has been a tremendous response to the photograph, praising it and the courage of the photographer who made it. There have also been many inquiries about how readers can help this boy and others like him. We are investigating the means by which we might be able to facilitate that.

The last seven paragraphs of the accompanying story describe the circumstances of the boy and his mother. What has become of them since the photograph was documented?

At the time of publication, the NYT was pursuing news of — but was uncertain about — the status and well-being of the mother and child.

I did get an update (Sunday) morning about the family. The photographer arranged for a week’s worth of food to be brought to the family and is investigating, along with others, how to get the child to a specialist for proper medical treatment. With the government crackdown on non-governmental organizations, it is very difficult to arrange for help to be delivered.

Is it your sense that the journalist that documented this powerful photograph is in danger?

My sense is that every journalist working in such an unstable climate is certainly at some risk. Our reporter Barry Bearak’s recent detention while reporting out of Zimbabwe only drives this point home for me.

We tend to take for granted that we will hear reports and see images from every corner of the world where news is happening. But it is crucial to remember that all of these pieces of information are reported and delivered to us by courageous individuals doing the legwork in sometimes volatile environments, and often risking their own safety in the process.

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