Friday, January 7, 2011

A truly dismal standard of reporting

Hungary and the UK are on the brink of war, at least in the media after the Economist illustrated one article with a not-so-flattering photograph of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán. This prompted HírTV, a pro-government news channel, to accuse the Economist of editing the picture such way as to make Mr Orbán, not very popular in Western Liberal press, appear like the devil himself. (Ironically, the photograph was taken by a Hungarian PJ and rather good allround photographer, Ferenc Isza on behalf of AFP. Not a surprise he wasn't available for comment.) The Economist, having a taste for weird humour like jokes about "Hungary" sounding similar to "hungry", added the following caption: "Orban's coming for you".
Scary, huh?
Now, HírTV made an amateurish attempt at proving that the image was strongly manipulated. They asked a graphic artist to explain how the image was manipulated who presented it - on a photograph of cloudy sky of all things, with a method that looked like auto levels applied on a selection layer. The point was that applying lots of contrast can make an image look gloomy and foreboding, and the same can be done with a portrait. This was allegedly done with Mr Orban's image.
On a technical side it was a shot in the knee as it proved nothing and made HírTV look like idiots. However, they did have a point because the photo was indeed manipulated just not in the way they presented. So far so bad but Mr Micklethwait, the editor-in-chief (whom in exchange for his paper's most funny puns about Hungary I shall call Mr Nippletrait hereafter) published a blunt editor's note in their blog dealing with Eastern Europe. A few jewels: "I write to reject a completely unfounded and defamatory allegation you broadcast yesterday... Indeed, as in every magazine, all our pictures are colour-corrected for print production. We also cropped this picture to fit the column size... But the piece alleges that we went beyond this routine process to change the picture content fundamentally.... it is obvious that there is no manipulation... your piece reflected a dismal standard of reporting."
To prove they did nothing wrong the Economist published the original AFP shot and the cropped illustration side by side:

Alas, this was the point where Mr Nippletrait too made a fool out of himself and his paper.

First, anyone with just a little knowledge of photography knows that such cropping in a portrait gives more emphasize to the subject. Whatever he's doing will be more accentuated. Here the face, captured in a stern and not very flattering expression, becomes more predominant just by the tight crop. Moreover, the crop made the green parts of the Hungarian flag disappear and the resulting red-white-black colors might make one think of the Nazi , just in the spirit of an article trying to make Orbán appear as a new Hitler - but OK, maybe that's too much of a conteo.

Second, adjusting skin tones and WB on the face and hair resulted in much harsher facial features and I bet they even pushed the contrasts to achieve this. The result is an even more stern expression that could be easily interpreted as threatening, devilish, evil (you name it) and by adding the punchy caption the editors made sure that even the dumbest of readers understand: here's the bad guy, now hate him for two minutes.

Third (and this is the point where Mr Nippletrait's arguments go fatally wrong): even if we dismiss the above as nitpicking, fact is that with the same effort a less negative photograph could have been chosen. I wanted to upload a gif animation of the whole moment when the picture was taken but screwed it, anyway here's the next frame just a second after the angry look:

Uh-oh... here Mr Orban doesn't look like the devil and that wouldn't fit into the preconception of the Economist's "objective and fair" (cough) article, now would it?

That's the painful point. How can Mr Nippletrait be so naive to presume that readers aren't able to think a step further, and be easily convinced that because they didn't add another nose or Hitler moustache or devil's horns, there was no manipulation here? Picking this particular image alone was manipulation, and an even worse manipulation than that of - namely, a blatant emotional manipulation of the readers themselves. One doesn't need Photoshop to lie with a photograph, a pair of scissors and a good crop will do the job:

Here on the left we see the Al-Jazeera, in the middle the (uhm, that's supposed to be the unbiased fact-based media but none comes to mind) and to the right the FOXNews version of the same event, all captured within a single frame.

OK - all the press does adjust its illustrations to the story it wants to tell (I wish I could take a portrait of Mr Nippletrait picking his nose and adding a caption like "nothing good will come out from there" if for any reason I wanted to show him as an ugly person), but doing that and then claiming that they did nothing wrong is as ridiculous as HírTV's amateurish communication of the matter. As I see it, Mr Nippletrait's lecture about good journalism is an overdose of hypocrysis. Seen it before in the Economist, though... a few years back they published a long article in favour of the Turkish EU accession, illustrated with the photo of a Koran school and a caption "Nothing to be afraid of." Define demagogy, eh?
Just for fairness' sake I admit that their below illustration with Mr Orban looking down at the articles bashing him is totally hilarious:

Anyway, in my opinion we in Eastern Europe still make the mistake of taking Western media too seriously, as if it wouldn't be the same old manipulative instrument of those with power it always was. Ironically, this mess between HírTV and the Economist is just an example how our naivety fools us; after all, the whole thing is just another occasion to see how the press tries to manipulate us. The press manipulates, bankers are greedy, guinea pigs are not particularly bright. Did I tell something new?


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