Deception by Agence France-Presse

Please note the following photo, shot for NSSL by Al Moller, near Union City, OK, on 24 May 1973. I have added attribution to the image.

Having been a student at OU and working at NSSL back in the mid-late 1980s, in charge of organizing and cataloguing their slide collection, I became quite familiar with this image and many others. Sometime in the 1990s, after I left, the original slide was digitized and ported to the NOAA online photo library, where it can be found and downloaded by anyone for free use.

Just because it now is in public domain and can be used freely doesn’t mean it should be used deceptively. The news organization Agence France-Presse (AFP) did just that yesterday, with a story on a tornado near Waskom TX. They ran the Union City tornado image in this way (click on the image for a screen capture of the the combined photo and story from Google News).

That’s not the Waskom tornado! Clearly it is a slightly brightness-enhanced version of the 1973 Union City tornado shot. Yet nothing in the caption gives any indication that the photo depicts anything but the an “east Texas” tornado.

At least, in a separate story on a previous day’s tornado in California, supplied to Yahoo, the AFP used the photo with attribution as a file photo in small, light-colored print. That’s still somewhat misleading, in that none of the correct information was provided about the 1973 photo used in the sidebar.

Either the caption needs to be fixed (caption elimination/correction), or better, the photo itself should be deleted (photo kill) from such stories, and in fact, not used in that way to begin with. According to the 2007 edition of its rival’s Associated Press Stylebook (boldface for emphasis):

    “An AP caption ELIMINATION is moved for an acceptable photo that has a caption field that misrepresents the photo or is in bad taste. When this occurs, an AP caption ELIMINATION form is moved alerting members. Then the photo is rerun with the corrected caption using procedures for an AP caption CORRECTION transmission.”


    “An AP photo ELIMINATION is moved on PhotoStream and DataStream for a photo that carries no threat of legal action but is objectionable for other reasons, such as error, poor taste or inaccuracy.”

I guess AFP has much looser ethical constraints than AP.

That’s not all. Please examine the following screen-captured header from the English-language website of AFP, underlining added by me for emphasis:

“Original images”, my ass! How is a 1973 public-domain photo, that has been used in various public fora for decades, “original” in any way?

Come on, AFP; you can do better than digging up a low-resolution, online-freebie, poor-quality scan of a nearly 37-year old Oklahoma tornado slide, then pasting it into multiple stories about 2010 tornadoes in California and Texas. Sloppy, lazy, dishonest and unethical…definitely unbecoming of the world’s oldest news organization.

The two or three longtime readers of this BLOG may recall that I also busted the Drudge Report for misleading use of the very same photo! One thing is clear: Al’s photo has proved quite popular with lazy journalists.


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