Last week, I opened my front door in the morning and grabbed the day’s newspaper. On the front page was a dramatic picture of Sean Penn in a boat, looking like he was reaching out to rescue someone who was not in the picture.
“Cool,” I thought to myself. After all, in the wake of hurricane Katrina, I still hadn’t even made my way to the Red Cross’ website to make a contribution. So while I’m sitting on my hands, a guy like Sean Penn, who has a lot to lose by getting on the front line of the rescue efforts, is out saving lives, Mitch Buchanan style. But this was early in the morning and well before I had a chance to put on the cynical glasses through which I see the world.
Later that same day, in a funny but not so surprising development, I was reading some stuff on Blogcritics when I came across a full version of that same picture of Sean Penn. The funny and not so surprising part is that this major national newspaper had cut off the picture at Penn’s forearm and just above his head, thus leaving certain key details out of the frame.
What key details, you ask? Well by cutting off the frames of this picture, the good folks at this national newspaper significantly altered how an observer would likely interpret Sean Penn’s actions. In the full frame photo, Sean Penn was not extending his hand to a victim of this tragedy. Nope. Instead, Mr. Penn was emptying out a bailing can. Let me clarify: his boat was taking on water and the irritated actor was using a tin can to empty it out.
And what about the part above his head that was cut out, you ask? That part featured a guy in the background, half-smiling to a third unseen person (presumably in another boat).
So now, instead of a top actor dramatically making eye contact with a faceless victim as he reaches to pull that person to safety, you have a surly looking guy apparently very upset at bailing out his boat while his buddies snicker behind his back. Clearly two different messages.
Now my issue isn’t with Sean Penn. You may be surprised to read this, but I don’t know him personally. However I do like him as an actor. Also, as I mentioned above, at least he’s out there contributing something while guys like me sit and procrastinate about even donating money through the Red Cross. He’s doing good and trying to make a difference, which is more than a lot of people (celebrity or not) would do.
My issue is with this newspaper deliberately altering a picture to give us, the readers who turn to these sources for reliable information, a significantly altered view of a particular occurrence. Sure, this isn’t a big deal but this is the one thing I caught. What else has been doctored? What else haven’t they shown us? What else did they incorrectly report just to sell some newspapers? I’m especially surprised that the publisher and editors would pull a stunt like this when so many people have access to the internet and other mediums where we could catch such a thing.
I understand the economics of selling papers, particularly at the national level. I understand that a picture of Sean Penn intensely reaching out like that would make a lot of people stop and pick up that paper over the next one. This boosts circulation, which attracts more advertising, for which the publisher can charge more money and all executives at the newspaper can earn the big bonus so they can buy that new Escalade or take the family to Hawaii for Spring Break. I get it. I just don’t agree with it.
In fact, it infuriates me that they jerk us around like that. I suspected it existed and even joked about it. However when I actually caught them myself, I was surprised at how upset I got. So what can I do?
First, I can name the newspaper: the National Post (of Canada).
Second, I can promote and advocate going to different sources for news and information.
Third, after the way traditional media has attacked blogs and bloggers as being poor news sources and generally undermining the quality of information supply, I find it interesting how these same “legitimate” news sources peddled the sales friendly, cropped Sean Penn pic. Even more interesting is that I found the unedited version of that same picture on a blog site. Both versions of the picture told two completely different stories. I guess in a certain way the blog did undermine the newspaper. Ten years ago, no one would have even noticed.
By the way, you can find the unedited Sean Penn photo right here at Blogcritics:
Again, I realize we’re just talking about a picture of Sean Penn. This isn’t the second coming of the Dan Rather/George Bush scandal. This isn’t even on par with the time Alfonso tried to pass off that impersonator as Michael Jackson on “Silver Spoons.” So I realize that to most, this isn’t a big deal. And it really isn’t…on the surface. Stop and think about what it represents: the deliberate altering of reality by a source the public trusts.
I personally think this is just an example of how these sources we trust for information can doctor reality to serve their own purposes, whether that is sales or re-election or whatever. And that should bother you. So remember this example of Mr. Penn’s photo the next time you read or hear a news story that doesn’t exactly sound like it’s coming from a neutral position.