Iran Missile Photo
July 10, 2008
By Daryl Lang
It was an arresting image: Four missiles arcing skyward in near perfect symmetry, perhaps a prelude to war. It was ominous. It was also a fake.
Newspapers and Web sites around the world were duped into running a propaganda photo handed out by the Iran Revolutionary Guard that turned out to have been digitally manipulated. The missile launch was real, but one of the four missiles in the image apparently wasn't.
The problematic image was distributed Wednesday by Agence France Presse, which said it obtained the photo from Sepah News, the house organ of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Video footage shot from the same angle and a second photo that is nearly identical show just three missiles, not four. AFP issued a correction Thursday saying, "The 2nd Right missile has apparently been added in digital retouch to cover a grounded missile that may have failed during the test."
By then it was too late. The image ran on many online news sites Wednesday. On Thursday, it ran on the front pages of newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times and the Boston Globe.
Several newspaper editors said they are planning follow-up stories and corrections for Friday's editions, and some have already posted corrections online. The Seattle Times, for one, was considering a front-page correction, said director of photography Barry Fitzsimmons. Other papers were planning stories and corrections inside the paper.
"This kind of stuff is misinformation and intentionally done to fool people," said Chicago Tribune assistant managing editor for photography Torry Bruno. "We don't feel too good about it. We're going to be as transparent as possible in tomorrow's paper," he said, adding that the paper planned to run something longer than a standard correction.
Photo editors in the U.S. variously blamed themselves and AFP, a respected photo agency, for not catching the photo.
"AFP should have caught it, really," says Tim Rasmussen, assistant managing editor for photography at the Denver Post, which ran the photo on A1. "It should never have gotten past them."
But another Post editor was miffed that he failed to catch it. "Oh, I hate days like this," said Ken Lyons, the paper's front-page photo editor. "It was right there in front of me. I should have seen it."
In 2003, Lyons was among the first editors to spot a manipulated image from Iraq by Los Angeles Times photographer Brian Walski. Lyons, who worked at Orlando Sentinel at the time, refused to run Walski's image when it was transmitted to his newspaper.
Catching some of the heat Thursday was Getty Images, which distributes AFP in the U.S. Getty director of photography Pancho Bernasconi says the AFP content arrives through an automatic feed and Getty does not edit it.
Some newspapers made it clear in their captions or credit lines that the photo was provided by the Iranian government. Others did not. The Denver Post ran the image as its lead art and credited it to AFP/Getty; the Baltimore Sun ran the photo on page 1 and credited it to Agence France Presse.
Early Thursday on the East Coast, more than 12 hours after the AFP image had been distributed, the Associated Press moved a nearly identical photo showing three missiles. It appears to have been photographed a fraction of a second apart from the AFP image. In a news story, the AP said it obtained the photo from the same Iranian Web site from which the AFP obtained theirs.
The first person to call foul on the photo appears to have been the political blog Little Green Footballs, which spotted the manipulation Wednesday. It took until Thursday for word to spread widely through sites like The Drudge Report and The New York Times. The AFP correction ran shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday on the East Coast.
The Iranian photo manipulation case has some parallels to the 2006 story of Adnan Hajj, a Reuters photographer working in Lebanon who was accused of transmitting two manipulated photos. One showed extra smoke in an image and one showing a jet firing three projectiles instead of two. Little Greet Footballs and other blogs spotted Hajj's photos first, and Reuters ran a correction soon after and launched an internal investigation that led to the firing of an editor.
Lyons, of the Denver Post, said it is no consolation to him that many other papers – including local rival The Rocky Mountain News – also ran the four-missile photo.
"I take absolutely no comfort in that at all," he says. Lyons was also reflective about how much stronger the picture seems with the one extra missile. "The thing I've been asking myself all day is, Would we have run it if it were just the three?"