Qadaruddin Shishir

Guest Writer
How a photo without proper sources became a ‘source’ of disinformation
This article is more than 1 year old

How a photo without proper sources became a ‘source’ of disinformation

Qadaruddin Shishir

Guest Writer

On March 28, Global Disinformation Index (GDI) and Bangladeshi organization Digitally Right Limited (DRL) jointly published a research report on disinformation in mainstream media.

The report titled “Disinformation Risk Assessment: The Online News Market in Bangladesh” attempts to examine the risk of disinformation being published on mainstream media websites in Bangladesh.

The study, conducted on 33 media websites, shows that all websites are at risk of playing a role in spreading disinformation. Of these, 17 websites are at ‘moderate risk’ and 16 at ‘high risk’.

Read the full report here.

More than 700 reports from 33 websites were analysed under 10 themes. It was found that Bangladeshi media contents (information/images/videos) are weakest in terms of source citation or attribution.

Below is an example of how the risk of spreading disinformation or misinformation is created due to not properly mentioning the sources of information, pictures or videos given in a news report and not properly attributing someone’s statement.

Coincidentally, a day before publishing this report, a photo in Bangladesh’s leading daily Prothom Alo – which was not published with proper sources – sparked huge controversy in the country’s online space and mainstream media.

We will now see how Prothom Alo’s unsourced news item has allowed misinformation and disinformation to spread.

On March 26, Prothom Alo published a report titled “We need freedom of fish, meat and rice.” Accompanying it was a photograph showing a child standing outside the gate of the National Memorial with a flower in hand and looking at the monument.

The picture attached to the report was captioned: “Sabuj Mia sees increased sales of flowers when more visitors come to National Memorial in Savar. That’s why this kid is waiting for Independence Day. Taken on Friday afternoon at the main gate of the memorial. Photo: Prothom Alo”.

Prothom Alo then shared a poster on their Facebook page with a picture of Sabuj Mia and a quote from a day labourer named Zakir Hossain below the picture.

The quote read: “What can you do with freedom if you don’t have food in your stomach? When we go to the market, we sweat (to manage food with meagre income). We need freedom of fish, meat and rice.”

The poster did not say that the name of the child in the picture is Zakir Hussain. It is not clarified that the name of the child in the picture is not (day labourer) Zakir Hossain, but the flower seller Md Sabuj, which is clearly mentioned in the original report.

In journalism, the standard rule for publishing an image is to have a caption containing some basic information such as where and when the picture was taken, a description or identity of the subject/person visible, and the name of the photographer.

The poster shared on Prothom Alo’s Facebook page did not follow this rule (although the image used in the original report did so). As a result, it is quite natural for those who have not read the original report to assume that the child is Zakir Hossain by taking the text under the picture of the child on the poster as a ‘caption’.

Not providing essential information about a photo in a caption and not carefully presenting a quote from another person risks sending the wrong message to the reader.

Prothom Alo admitted their mistake and removed the poster from Facebook.

However, the newspaper took an extra step and added corrections below the report by changing the headline and removing the photo of Sabuj, which was properly presented with the appropriate caption in the original report.

The corrected rejoinder states: “Due to inconsistency between the title and the image used in this report as originally published, the image has been removed and the title has been corrected. The statement quoted in the title was not of Md Sabuj in the picture but of Zakir Hossain, a day labourer. The post on social media has also been removed for the same reason.”

Another improper action of Prothom Alo was to keep the report unpublished for quite some time between publishing the report and adding the correction. In standard journalistic practice, it is considered highly unprofessional behaviour to ‘kill’ a story (even temporarily) without proper explanation.

After the correction of the report, a campaign started around this same picture claiming that “Prothom Alo’s picture is totally fake“. Somewhere else it is said that Prothom Alo’s “report is false“.

Ekattor TV ran with a report on their website (and also on TV) titled “The Image Published by Prothom Alo on Independence Day Is Totally Fake”.

The report reads: “When the photo was shown at the main gate of National Memorial in Savar, everyone recognised the child in the picture. However, Daily Prothom Alo misprinted the name. The child’s name is not Zakir, but Sabuj.”

In fact, Prothom Alo did not name the child ‘Zakir’ anywhere in their report. Rather, the identity and statements of the kid named Md Sabuj and the day labourer Zakir Hossain was published separately in the report.

However, confusion arose when the poster on Facebook depicted Zakir Hossain’s quote without a proper caption under Md Sabuj’s picture.

Consequently, it is untrue to claim that Prothom Alo has “printed the name wrongly” or “printed the child’s name Zakir”. This is the disinformation in question.

Somoy TV wrote in their report: “…private television channel Ekattor TV investigated the false report of Prathom Alo. The probe shows that the report is a completely fabricated story. This report is based on complete falsehood and misinformation.”

In this case, too, the claim of Somoy TV is false. Because Prothom Alo did not claim Sabuj as Zakir Hossain. And it is not professional journalistic practice to call an entire report ‘false’, ‘fabricated story’ etc because of inconsistent use of a photo.

At the root of this whole fiasco and the confusion and controversy created among the general readers is the publication of a picture by the press without mentioning its proper source. Such practices are often seen in the media of Bangladesh.

Proper attribution of every piece of information, image and video used in news reports and using caution when quoting someone’s words are important to control disinformation and misinformation.

Qadaruddin Shishir

Qadruddin Shishir is a renowned factchecker in Bangladesh. He’s currently working as Bangladesh editor for AFP Factcheck.