When seeing isn’t believing

January 23, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

His name is Omran Daqneesh, but you know him as “Aleppo Boy,” forever captured in a heartbreaking visual: a barefooted 5-year-old, covered in blood and dust, sitting quietly in an ambulance, pulled from the rubble that was once his house. The gut-wrenching 2016 moment went viral worldwide, giving a face to the suffering of Aleppo citizens at the hands of the Syrian government.

But a year later, there was Omran again on video. This time, he was clean, dressed in spiffy clothes and sporting neat hair. On Syrian state television, the boy’s father denounced the previous images of his child, and accused Syrian rebels and the international media of using his son as a propaganda tool. But even that turn-around was suspect, as reports emerged that the father was coerced to make the statements by the biased and untrustworthy Syrian state television.

What are we to believe, even when we see something with our own eyes?

As Poynter senior faculty member Al Tompkins says, “The difference between accuracy and truth is context.’’

That’s the lesson when it comes to looking at the video of the standoff between Catholic high school students and the Native American drummer in Washington, D.C., over the weekend. We all saw what we saw. A young man wearing a Make America Great Again hat standing in front of a Native American banging a drum and chanting.

But did we really see what we think we saw?

Some of us saw a long video of the event. Some of us saw an abbreviated version. Some of us saw just a photo.

Whatever we saw, it likely came with commentary. If so, we were seeing it through the lens of the person who posted the video or photo.

Was the young man smiling or smirking? Was he trying to be friendly or intimidating? Was he confused or confrontational? Embarrassed or emboldened? Was he looking for trouble or trying to avoid it?

What about the Native American? Was he an antagonist or innocent victim?

Your answers might depend not on what your eyes tell you, but what the political voice in your head tells you.

But no matter how you viewed the video, what we don’t have is what we absolutely need the most: context.

So you must ask: What came in the moments before the video? What came after?

And when it comes to this video, and photos such as the Aleppo Boy, you must first ask: Did you personally witness the entire event or are you relying solely on someone else’s video or account of the event?

Then our attention must turn to the people who shot the visual and ask:

  • Why were they at the scene?
  • What was their role that day?
  • What is their background?
  • Why were they shooting images?
  • Why did they release the visuals?
  • What is their motivation?
  • What did they hope to accomplish by releasing it?

Until we know those answers, it’s dangerous to make judgments on what we are seeing, even if we all see the same thing.

It’s possible to have the facts right, but not have the right facts.

Everyone is armed with a camera these days. Anyone can play citizen journalist. The problem is citizen journalists are not bound by the same rules as professional journalists. Citizen journalists aren’t vetted, nor is their work. Regular citizens can shoot a video and, within seconds, upload it with commentary on the internet for all the world to see.

Videos shot by professionals from reputable news organizations come with reporting. Before such videos air, they go through editors and a series of checks. (They should anyway.)

Most of all, news organizations should and normally do put stories into context. That needs to be their goal before airing any video or audio, writing any story or posting any report.

Just after World War II, the Commission on Freedom of the Press released a report titled “A Free and Responsible Press.’’ Its words still hold true.

“There is no fact without a context and no factual report which is uncolored by the opinions of the reporter …

“The account of an isolated fact, however accurate in itself, may be misleading and, in effect, untrue.’’

What the commission is saying is: You can’t always believe what you see.

As the commission writes: “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.’’

Just like in the case of Aleppo Boy, we still must report “the truth about the fact’’ of that photo. It’s never easy. Answers can be elusive. They are complicated and nuanced. Even years later, we still can’t be completely sure what the facts are when we see that little boy covered in blood and dust. Just as we can’t be sure about the video of the student and Native American only days after it happened.

But to uncover the truth, we must start with putting what we see in context. Without context, we have no chance of knowing the real story.