The Washington Post has a piece up that looks back at a controversial photo it published last November. The image, of a Palestinian man allegedly holding the body of his child, originally carried a caption indicating the boy had been killed by an Israeli airstrike.

After an investigation, a United Nations commission has determined the boy was most likely killed by an errant Palestinian rocket.

It raises questions about what we publish, particularly in a conflict zone. How do you know exactly what happened? And, when facts are not absolutely determinable, what do you do with images like this one, transmitted by the Associated Press?

How would you respond to the following caption:

Jihad Masharawi weeps while he holds the body of his 11-month old son Ahmad, at Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Nov. 14, 2012. Masharawi claimed the boy was killed by a rocket during the conflict between Israel and Palestine but there is no corroborating evidence that indicates whose rocket struck his home.

That’s accurate and, to an open mind, fair, but the anti-Palestinian readers will claim it’s to vague and the anti-Israel readers will claim it’s too vague, as well.

So do we publish information without being 100% certain of it? Or do we write that we don’t know? Or do we not publish until we have all the facts, knowing that in a hyper-connected, “news” saturated world, someone else will?

There’s an ethics class in that last graf, isn’t there?

My gut feeling: If you don’t have at least two reputable, reliable and known sources, you don’t have it. Journalism is about both bearing witness and researching, it’s about knowing who is and who is not a credible source. The facts matter.

Will sources lie to you? Yes, and that’s where your journalism sense comes in to play, that’s when our inherent cynicism shines: Everything here makes sense, so how do I disprove what they’re saying? If you can’t, then you have the story.

Notice I sand, “If you can’t …” There’s a big different between not being able to disprove it and not disproving it. One is active, one is a passive choice to not try.

Now, let’s talk about the very strange toning job done on that image, shall we? Because that raises a lot of red flags for me, too.

(Thanks to Mickey Osterreicher for the link.)

Mark E. Johnson

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