Visuals in journalism: when can you trust it?

I my previous blogs I emphasized the importance of visualizations in the field of journalism. I always thought that in this digital and fast pace world, visuals play a big role as they are eye candy for the readers. They usually captures our attention even before noticing the headline or the article itself. There are positive and negative sides of usage of visuals. From the positive side – it can help to illustrate big data, make it clear, stress a point and make the story richer. And most importantly, it can attract readers to pay attention to the story. Seems great, right? But there is always another side of the story. Of the negative note, as mentioned in previous blogs, visuals can have no purpose and meaning or mislead the readers providing incorrect or corrupted information. Especially used in framing when audience is pushed one way or another. Here comes an important issue, even if data is practical, useful and even appealing, when do we know if it is reliable?

In order to find out if the visual is reliable we need to verify it first. Trushar Barot and Malachy Brownie in Verification handbook identifies verification process which should be taken into consideration by a journalist:

1. Establish the author/originator of the image. This is a crucial and most important step in the verification process.Identification of the author of the image can be done by searching various data bases or using (both free and paid) internet platforms like google reverse image search or tineye. These kind of platforms can also help when it comes to reading articles and having doubts whether the image was taken from another even and used inappropriately. When it comes to videos, identifying source can be done by checking uploader’s information (e.g. youtube data viewer) and also searching for possible copies of the video material.

2. Corroborate the location, date and approximate time the image was taken. These key factors can guide weather the image is taken of particular issue. If you contact the creator or the image, you might take into account these questions: who are they? where are they? when did they get there? what can they see (and what does the photo or video show)? why are they there? What is more, some additional visuals can be asked to be presented in order to prove that the creator was at that particular place when event/happeneing took place. Images can be also checked by analysing metadata (also known as EXIF) as it provides technical details about the image (e.g. Flickr website does that automatically where EXIF data can’t be edited, it shows exact time and technical features of the camera and gear that was used). For the videos, most of sites can identify the time and place the material was uploaded at/from. Obviously, visual element (any kind) analysis can also help to identify whether the even is real or not (even if it’s tricky sometimes) when we take into account location and date/time of the material.

3. Confirm the visual is what it is labeled/suggested to be showing. As the point speaks for itself it is important to find out whether the image represents the issue you are reflecting to. Important key factors (mentioned in the second point) should be analysed beforehand. Afterwards, it is important to see the angle of the visuals, what kind of connotation it is giving the viewer – does it have positive or negative feeling, can it be manipulated, how objective is it (is it a captured moment that can be interpretative or it represents actual event without taking sides)?. As sometimes it can be manipulated and published later (or taken from another article or data base) in order to support the story.

4. Obtain permission from the author/originator to use the image or video. This point is important for journalist who not only confirm and verifies images but want to use it. Due to copyright laws – permission is needed in order to avoid possible trouble in the future.

Case 1: Incorrect visuals. When there is no match between a person and an image.


Death of Nelson Mandela was a sensitive topic in 2013. A lot of news papers and internet portal wrote about this tragedy. Unfortunately, due to lack of knowledge or time or any other reason, some visuals were used incorrectly. Delfi – Lithuanian news portal wrote an article about RSA remembering the first year anniversary of N. Mandela’s death. The article was published in 2014. The image above illustration presents 3 different pictures. The left one and the top right one is, obviously, of an actor Morgan Freeman who was confused to Nelson Mandela due to appearance similarities. Only the right bottom one represent the actual person who goes along with the whole article. Interestingly enough, the left picture came out in 2013. It was a billboard printed in India where the same mistake of mixing these two people were made. Despite that, even in 2014 the same mistake was made. It is an ethical mistake. Of course, this is a raw example of using a wrong image, if you have doubts – try google image search, pictures of Morgan Freeman will pop out in a huge amount sequence. No doubt that there are more crucial examples, especially when it comes to important issues like war, politics, election, etc., image can be used for different purpose directing audience to the opposite way of the matter. And not only incorrect images can be used but also manipulated and edited ones, where specific angle is chosen in order to make a statement.

Case 2: Manipulation of an image. When the angle is chosen for you.

Original pictures
Published pictures

In 2003, Los Angeles Times published pictures of a soldier in Basra. Photographer Brian Walski manipulated two images (two top images), merging it into one (the one bellow) in order to create more dramatic effect. This kind of manipulation gives a completely different angle, where it opens doors for interpretation. As it touched important issues, it can extremely risky to publish images like this as it spreads on all the digital platforms so quickly. It’s an example which shows that we can never be too sure what we see, even if the picture seems real – it might be edited. These kind of publications can lead to crucial consequences and just think about examples when we are not aware that it has been manipulated.(Not to mention, the photographer was fired from his position)

In summary, this digital age brings variety of opportunities for journalist. Visuals are a great way to illustrate the story and make it appealing in so many levels, therefore, some basic rules should be taken into account. As mentioned in previous blogs – challenge everything, not only the text or data, but also visuals. As it serves as eye candy and we notice it first, we have to avoid first impressions, connotations and keep our eyes open. Especially if we stand on the journalism side where these kind of mistakes (if we look at both cases) – shouldn’t be made.


Amnesty International launches video verification tool, website. Craig Silverman, 2014. Retrieved from here.

A journalist’s guide to verifying images. Jennifer Dorroh, 2011. Retrieved from here.

Native journalism and how to verify unaltered photography for free. April Nowicki, 2014. Retrieved from here.

Verification handbook. An ultimate guideline on digital age sourcing for emergency coverage. Edited by Craig Silverman. Pages: 35 – 69.


3 thoughts on “Visuals in journalism: when can you trust it?

  1. AprilLuo says:

    Do love your two examples, one mistake and one frame. The first is really a error, but the second is what journalists do nowadays. In our course, what we have learnt and what you emphasized in the beginning help us to avoid the first kind of error and we may apply it in our project. As the second one, as potential journalists, I guess we are trying to train ourselves to be skilled masters to use the frame thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wernard says:

    These are good examples of a mistake and a manipulation. The first one is a bit silly, also considering that Morgan Freeman played Mandela in the movie Invictus.

    After seeing a lot of examples of things that can go wrong in journalism during this course, you become suspicious of everything. For me it’s now very refreshing when I see something that I don’t immediately question.

    Liked by 1 person

    • wysloos says:

      I agree, if anything this course leaves me with a much more critical eye towards news articles, which is probably a very good thing.

      Gabrielle, your examples were very well chosen… a silly mistake which was the result of the journalists not following the guidelines set out in the first part of your blog. And then the second one… which shows what happens when journalists deliberately set out to manipulate their pictures. It makes me wonder… is there a process in journalism which sets out when it is ‘allowed’ to manipulate images to tell your story?

      Liked by 1 person

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