An interesting ethical question for media students today. The Mirror, the only UK newspaper to always support the Labour Party has been at the centre of a public debate about the ethics of image use. Its front-page story was about the large number of UK families who had to use food banks because they haven’t enough income to be able to shop in supermarkets. To illustrate the story the Mirror picture desk selected a ‘stock image’, paying a reproduction fee to Getty Images. The photograph was actually taken by an American photographer in 2009 and depicted her small daughter who was crying after she lost a worm that she was ‘looking after’. Her mother sold the rights to Getty for commercial exploitation and the original is posted on Lauren Rosenbaum’s flickr site.
The incident raises several questions/issues but first it’s important to understand the political context. The UK government is keen to exploit its latest announcement about the UK economy with low inflation, lower unemployment etc. The Mirror wants to spoil this story by reminding us that UK residents should be ashamed of living in a rich country in which inequalities are increasing and in which food banks are now essential to feed the poor. To give its story more impact it has used an image which grabs attention and wrings emotion from the reader. The objections towards the use of the image come mainly from right-wing commentators who want everyone to know that the image is not ‘authentic’.
BBC Radio 5 organised a debate on the topic and invited two speakers, a Professor of Journalism and an ex-Deputy Editor of the Mirror. The Professor was not very helpful in my view but the ex-editor summed up the situation well. He argued that the photo was a ‘grabber’ and that there was no problem in using the image symbolically rather than as a documentary/reportage image. He suggested that what the paper should have done is to include a caption with the image stating: ‘Picture posed by a model’ or ‘Stock photo supplied by Getty’ etc. In failing to do this, the Mirror laid itself open to the accusation of ‘misleading its readers’. As he suggested later on, any analysis of this controversy should also bear in mind that to print a photo of a genuine child in distress because of hunger might be seen as exploiting those who are suffering in this way. There is nothing wrong with using a stock image, but it should be signified as such.
Two other points to remember. 1. The Mirror was found guilty two days running by the Press Gazette. The previous day it had used an image of a giant rat in a story about Liverpool, but the image actually belonged to a story published in a London local paper last year. The Mirror claimed that it had been deceived but this seems to be another case of poor ‘fact-checking’ – something US newspapers are very conscious of but which the UK press is seemingly less interested in. 2. The Mirror is a tabloid newspaper and at one time the most successful tabloid paper in the UK. It was overtaken by the Sun and the Mail – two right-wing papers which have done much to lower the quality threshold of the UK press. The Mirror, for all its faults, is best when it gets back to its previous role in dealing in real stories presented for a popular audience. The scandal about the new poor, victims of current UK government policy, is a real story.