Revisiting the BBC-Syria Massacre Image

Several weeks ago I linked to a piece by John Harrington about a photo the BBC published claiming to be from a massacre in Syria. As a quick recap, the BBC published a photo they were sent from an “activist” that claimed to show rows of white-clad bodies, the victims of a massacre in Houla.

The problem was the images was actually shot by photographer Marco Di Lauro. Nine years earlier. And in Iraq.

It was a total lie and no one at the BBC caught it before publication.

A day or so later, Max Fisher at The Atlantic also wrote about the issue and that story has been making the rounds the last few days. (I have no idea why it suddenly started coming across the transom from multiple sources several weeks later.)

I’ve read his piece a few times and … well … it is really annoying. Let me excerpt a graf or two …

It’s easy to see why Di Lauro would be upset, but the BBC’s error seems like an innocent one, and is in some ways an inevitable result of the changing ways in which international media cover conflict zones. Places such as Houla, where Syrian forces killed dozens of civilians including 32 children under the age of 10, are often too dangerous to cover first-hand. Even when journalists can make their way in, as with New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks’ trip to Syria in February, the visit must be brief, and even the journey to and from can be enormously risky; Times reporter Anthony Shadid died on the trip. (Emphasis added)

“Seems like” an innocent error? They didn’t vet the source of the photo. They didn’t match the content of the photo with the details of the story. They failed at basic journalism.

Fisher is also playing fast and loose with the facts in their last sentence. Yes, Anthony Shadid died while reporting in Syria – but not from combat. He died from an asthma attack. Yes, he died while finishing up a reporting trip to the conflict area, but the implication in Fisher’s piece is it was a direct result of the story he was covering.

But it’s the opening sentence of the last graf that baffles me:

The 2003 Iraq photo that got mistaken for Syria today was, in a way, not entirely inaccurate.

Excuse me?

Let me test that theory for you:

  • Does the photo show the bodies of people killed in a massacre in Houla? No, therefore it is inaccurate.
  • Does the photo show a similar number of bodies to the number reported killed? No, therefore it is inaccurate.
  • Was the photo shot in Houla? No, therefore it is inaccurate.
  • Was the photo shot in Syria? No, therefore it is inaccurate.
  • Was the photo shot in 2012? No, therefore it is inaccurate.
  • Was the photo made by an “activist?” No, therefore it is inaccurate.

The photo is inaccurate. It is wrong. It is a lie.

Journalism is hard. It isn’t something that should be done lightly, either on the reporting, editing or publishing side.

And, when it comes to reporting on life and death situations, you damned well better be accurate.

Mark E. Johnson

2 Responses

  1. Listen to yesterday’s ‘On the Media.’ They postulate that British journalists are as serious about the truthfulness of their work as American journalists. It’s interesting.

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