Have you ever read a news article and noticed that the picture being used was not of the topic being discussed, unhelpful, or downright misleading? Take a look at this recent article by the respectable publication PC World, for example. The article talks about Amazon’s criticism of the FAA over its drone regulation. The picture at the very top of the article shows a picture of a drone with a cardboard box attached to the bottom. The propellers are spinning, implying that the package is in motion; perhaps even being delivered.
Or is it? A single-line caption at the bottom of the picture reads “Slavoljub Pantelic/Shutterstock.com.” A quick Google for the name “Slavoljub Pantelic” reveals that he has a portfolio on Shutterstock’s website. The third picture on his portfolio shows an identical drone delivering “hot and fresh” pizza boxes without the pizza company’s name on it. I wasn’t aware Amazon was offering pizza delivery service. Sign me up! If you scroll down to the tenth picture on Pantelic’s portfolio, you’ll see the one used by PC World. Alternatively, you could simply have searched for “drones” at Shutterstock’s site, and the picture used by PC World would show up as the second result.
So why put such an irrelevant picture into a news article? Are we to believe that the drone shown in the picture was one flown by Amazon when the article says the FAA’s permission for Amazon to fly an experimental drone came too late because the approved drone was already obsolete? Or perhaps the picture was inserted because the journalist believes readers are curious about what Amazon’s drones might look like. But nowhere in the article is the drone described, and inserting a stock picture that has probably been widely used elsewhere is more likely to mislead, rather than inform the reader in this regard. Readers who don’t know about stock photos may be mislead into believing that the picture is of an actual Amazon drone.
The problem is not limited to any particular journalist, article, or even publication. It is endemic throughout online news articles, and many are guilty of the practice. In some cases, one might make the argument that the subject being discussed is so obscure that a picture might serve an illustrative purpose, but this argument can’t be applied universally.
Take a look at this article, for example. The article’s title is “Obama Removes Weapon Freeze Against Egypt.” So does the picture prominently featured at the top show President Obama removing the weapon freeze, perhaps by signing a piece of legislation? The caption seems to imply otherwise: “
Finally a relevant and helpful use of a picture! We now get to see what it looks like for President Obama to sign a memorandum of disapproval. So if this is what President Obama was actually doing in the picture, why use it in another article that discussed him doing something else? Does the average reader not know what President Obama looks like? To be fair, any negative impact of the unhelpful use of President Obama’s picture in this case was relatively limited, unless the reader attaches some importance to seeing President Obama taking a very specific action. This isn’t always the case.
In a particularly egregious example of this practice, I once read a November 2008 article (the link to which is now broken) about a masked gunman closing down a freeway. A picture shown at the top of the article showed a masked gunman, but it wasn’t the same one discussed in the article! In fact, a caption in bold red on the picture itself read “NOT the Santa Barbara gunman.” If he (or she) wasn’t the gunman described in the story, why use the picture at all? The journalist who wrote that story wasted his time looking for the picture, wasted more time telling readers that the picture was irrelevant, and now wants to waste readers’ time by making them look at the irrelevant picture. If readers desire and expect honest, informative articles about the topics they care about, they should hold their publications to higher journalistic standards.