A War of Images and Perceptions

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 13, 2006

As the war in Lebanon and Israel continues, readers write and call to criticize, question and vent. Photos and civilian casualties, especially out of Qana in southern Lebanon, were two recent hot buttons.

Pictures of pain and suffering, especially on Page 1, can have a profound and emotional effect on readers. Jonathan Javitt of the District asked: "When will you get tired of being manipulated by Arab propaganda stunts?" Other readers questioned whether photos were staged. The Reuters news agency's admission that a freelance photographer had altered two photographs -- neither used in The Post -- stoked readers' suspicions.

The issue isn't what photos are taken; The Post gets 2,000 photos a day from the Associated Press, Reuters and Getty Images. The issue is what appears in the paper. With photographers swarming over the war zone, Post photo editors often see many images of one incident and check newspapers and Web sites around the world.

Post photo editors are cautious about Middle East photos. "You can't take things at face value. Some freelance photographers lack journalistic training. They are not operating under the same standards as most photographers throughout the world," said Joe Elbert, assistant managing editor for photography. Editors look for manipulation and balance. "We worry about that all the time," he said.

The way the two Reuters photographs were doctored -- to make smoke darker and add flares dropped from a plane -- was "beyond stupid," Elbert said. Post policy prohibits altering photos. "We don't use tools to change reality," he said. Reuters said that the freelancer, Adnan Hajj, had been dropped and editing tightened.

My review of war photos published in The Post didn't show any obvious manipulation. Several readers questioned the July 31 Page 1 photo of the dead at Qana and said they had heard that one person had been moving and that the photo had been staged.

Post photographer Michael Robinson-Chavez was there. "Everyone was dead, many of them children. Nothing was set up. There was no way photos could have been altered with a dozen photographers there."

Elbert and his deputy, Keith Jenkins, and I reviewed many photos from Qana. Only one photo, not published, looked staged -- of a rescue worker holding a dead child up for the camera. Who took it? Adnan Hajj.

Seventeen front-page photos have come from Lebanon and 11 from Israel. More photos have originated in heavily damaged Lebanon, and most pictures in Israel were of the military, often firing into Lebanon. There were photos of grieving Lebanese and of grieving Israelis. Most Page 1 pictures were from the Associated Press, which has six photographers in both countries, said Santiago Lyon, AP director of photography.

Robinson-Chavez was in Gaza, Israel and Lebanon for five weeks. He explained why readers don't see pictures of suspected Hezbollah guerrillas, whose stronghold is southern Lebanon. They are recognizable because they're young and bearded and have walkie-talkies -- and don't want to be photographed. He said they intentionally are not armed when photographers are around. He was detained by several one day and then released.

David Kross of Columbia also complained, as did other readers, that "The Post had a blaring headline about Israel's killing . . . Lebanese in Qana. When that number was reduced by more than half, the Post 'buried' the information." The Post stripped the original story across Page 1, quoting the Lebanese health minister as saying that at least 57 people died, most of them children huddled inside a three-story building in a small village.

The initial story from Qana caused a diplomatic flurry. Two days later, Human Rights Watch ( http://www.hrw.org/ ) put the number of dead at 28, 16 of them children; that update was deep inside the roundup story, deep inside the paper. Readers were right that the new, much lower number should have been high in the story or under a separate headline. David Hoffman, assistant managing editor for foreign news, disagrees. He said the casualty count was pushed lower in the story on deadline to make room for other, later news, including the largest rocket barrage on Israel and the Israeli military inquiry, which said the building would not have been attacked had the military known civilians were inside.

Civilian casualties are hard to document, and government figures can be wrong. Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview from Damascus that he was at the Qana hospital the day after the bombing. HRW, an international nonprofit organization, interviews "multiple eyewitnesses" to calculate its numbers. Bouckaert said he felt it was "not a conscious effort" on the part of the Lebanese health ministry "to inflate the death toll. It was a very confusing and traumatic day."

The Post also relies on the Associated Press for casualty figures. Steven R. Hurst, AP's deputy bureau chief in Cairo, oversees the collection of those figures; he said the AP is "always cautious" about government figures and uses only those considered "trustworthy." A network of Iraq AP stringers also collects numbers. Yet, Hurst said, "I know there is a great deal more violence than reaches our ears."

For its regular Saturday graphic on civilian casualties in Iraq, The Post uses iraqbodycount.org. Its Web site says, "We believe it is a moral and humanitarian duty" to record civilian deaths. The Web site was started in January 2003 by a mostly British group of volunteers, said co-founder John Sloboda of Stafford, England. They operate from home with "hardly any money" and scour the English-language news media daily. If two or more reputable news organizations report casualties, it goes into their database.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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