Fauxtography in the Political Conflict Media

The above is the Pulitzer prize-winning
photograph taken by Kevin Carter in the Sudan in 1993. The girl was trying to
make it to a feeding center when the vulture landed. Carter waited about 20
minutes, took the picture, and then the vulture flew off. Carter was criticized
for not doing more to help the girl. He committed suicide a year later.

The photograph is haunting and
grippingly captures the consequences of famine and poverty. But what is the
practical effect of these photographs? They are powerful but there are some
misconceptions about such media effects. This is essentially a question of the
CNN effect, the idea that persistent around-the-clock media coverage influences
official political decision-making. It is termed the CNN effect but really refers
to a broad range of persistent real-time media that can set political agendas,
impede governmental actions, or accelerate them because of immediate news
coverage. There are some general misconceptions about this media effect.

To spend a moment looking at this picture and absorbing its impact is an
emotional experience. The vulture’s presence is ominous and captures the agony
between deep human identification and the raw reality of nature. But what is
the practical and political impact of these pictures? Do they cause people to
act, do pictures of suffering pressure governments to initiate humanitarian
aid? Surely, such pictures sometimes encourage action but not always. Political
leaders calculate the costs of interventions. If providing aid is relatively
easy and cheap then aid is easily forthcoming. But governments are conservative
about interventions when it involves troops and long-term commitments.

There was pressure to do something in
Bosnia where there was horrific Serbian violence against Muslims and pictures
of emaciated corpses. But the Bush administration was not going to commit the
troops and resources necessary to effect change. The media were manipulated in
this case to make it appear as though the US were providing aid when in fact
our reaction was minimal. Media images of suffering had little effect on
foreign policy. Clinton did not intervene in Rwanda in 1994 and the airways
were full of coverage of slaughter. A study once showed that contributions to
relief agencies do not increase during periods of wartime and images of dead
soldiers. But there is an uptick in contributions when the pictures are of
innocents – women and children. So the CNN effect must be conditioned. It can
inform and energize a public as it makes the public aware of atrocities, but it
does not dictate so easily to governments.

The two photos below are from the public relations service of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and first appeared 2008. As was explained at that time, a second missile from the right seems to be the sum of the two missiles in the image. The shape of the smoke match perfectly near the ground as well as the immediate wake of the missile. There are some slight variations of color but they are very minor. The photos were quickly retracted. After being shown the photos a representative of a London-based Institute for Strategic Studies pointed out that the photos appeared to be doctored to cover up what was apparently a firing mistake on the part of one of the missiles.

These photos actually have appeared more than a few times over the last four years. They are a good example of fauxtography.

The media do play some role in either stoking or calming passions – especially with visual images. In the Middle East, for example, no reporter leaves the scene indifferent to the passions involved in the region. And a thoughtful reporter recognizes the feelings of both sides. This requires reporters and analysts to be “morally careful” so that the true enduring and important issues are represented as accurately as possible. Visual images are coded and cognitively processed quickly with a high-impact message. They are not the medium of careful analysis but better communicators of passions and feelings.
Television is a visual medium and the primary source of information about political conflict for most people. Television sets the agenda and signals which issues are most and least important. This is done at least primarily through visual means. It hasbecome so easy to manipulate visual images that it is only a matter of time before our memories and images for history are increasingly distorted. I suppose the only answer is a sort of visual fact checker who finds the truth about either starving children or misfiring artillery.

About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on September 21, 2012, in Media and politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Photos may also have an impact through their absence.

    The Bush/Cheney administration banned the domestic publication of photographs of the coffins of our soldiers killed in Iraq returning to America. These flag-draped images were evidently too-concrete reminders of their folly.

    And of course the manipulated images of a crude video can incite thousands to violence and murder.

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