The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Propaganda or news: Should media publish government’s child-detention photos?

This undated photo, provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, shows children at a detention facility near McAllen, Tex. It has been widely used by news media. No news organization has been allowed inside the facility to take photos.
This undated photo, provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, shows children at a detention facility near McAllen, Tex. It has been widely used by news media. No news organization has been allowed inside the facility to take photos. (AP)

Based on the photographic evidence, living conditions inside government-run detention centers for immigrant children separated from their parents in south Texas look reasonably orderly and clean.

But there’s a major catch: All of the photographs depicting life inside the facilities have been supplied by the government itself. There’s been no independent documentation; federal officials, citing the children’s privacy, have barred journalists from taking photographs or video when they’ve been permitted inside.

This has left news organizations with a quandary: Do they publish the handouts supplied by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — which has an incentive to make its facilities look as humane and comfortable as possible — or do they reject the photos as essentially propaganda?

The New York Times, for one, has taken the latter course. On Monday, it said it would not publish CBP-supplied photos. “We thought it was a bad precedent to accept government handout photos when [photojournalists aren’t] allowed in,” Dean Baquet, the paper’s editor, said in an interview. “It would hurt any future case for access. And given the sensitivity of this story, I don’t think we can assure readers that we are seeing a full picture when the government makes the choice of what we see and show. Readers want to know what these places look like, from the view of journalists who are witnesses.”

One of the government-supplied photos — a shot of children sprawled on thin mattresses under mylar blankets — was featured prominently by many news organizations on Tuesday. The photo ran atop The Washington Post’s front page, although a caption spelled out the context: “An undated photograph released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows children at a detention center near McAllen, Tex. . . . No news organizations have been allowed inside the facility to take photos.”

Martin Baron, The Post’s editor, said the newspaper “vigorously objects to the exclusion of news photographers from these facilities, which is detrimental to public understanding of the Trump administration’s separation policy. We are publishing some photographs provided by authorities because they are, for the time being, the only images available. We evaluate these situations case by case. Use of such photos is sharply limited, and we would never permit their use for an indefinite period.”

CNN, Fox News, the Associated Press, USA Today and others also published the photo but made clear it came from CBP. Others, such as the New York Post, published the image without noting its source.

The few journalists who have gotten access to the facilities have suggested the government’s image-making is distorted, at best. Jacob Soboroff, an MSNBC reporter who visited the McAllen center, said what he saw inside was “shocking,” though Soboroff had no pictures to back up this impression.

He described children “locked up in cages essentially, what look like animal kennels.” But even his eyewitness account had limitations. Soboroff noted that officials asked him not to talk to people inside the center, thus keeping their experiences in the dark.

Nonetheless, a powerful bit of reporting emerged on Monday. Pro Publica, an independent news organization, published an audiotape of detained children wailing for their parents as an agent jokes, “Well, we have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.”

The week-old recording came from Jennifer Harbury, a civil rights attorney who lives and works in south Texas, according to Pro Publica reporter Ginger Thompson. Harbury got it from another person, whom Pro Publica did not identify because that person expressed “ fear of retaliation,” Thompson wrote. Harbury said the person who recorded it was a client who “heard the children’s weeping and crying, and was devastated by it.”

The news organization confirmed the authenticity of the recording by calling a relative of one of the detained girls, who is heard on the tape reciting the relative’s phone number to an official, said Stephen Engelberg, Pro Publica’s editor in chief. The girl’s relative — an aunt who lives in El Salvador — confirmed to Thompson that the child and her mother had been separated at the facility. A spokesperson for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency didn’t question the accuracy of the reporting, Engelberg said.

The issue of official restrictions on media access certainly isn’t new. Photojournalists typically have to seek permission to enter schools, hospitals and businesses. They are often kept at bay by one side or another in war zones, making it difficult to document atrocities, suffering or the course of battle.

The White House Correspondents’ Association, which has regularly lobbied White House officials for greater access for journalists, formally protested the Obama White House’s restrictions on photojournalists in 2013. The organization said the White House routinely excluded news photographers from important events involving the president, and then issued its own photos taken by an official White House photographer.

“You are, in effect, replacing independent journalism with visual press releases,” the group’s protest letter said. It called the White House’s policy “an arbitrary restraint and unwarranted interference in legitimate news-gathering activities.”

The WHCA’s current president, Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News, said Tuesday that her organization hasn’t protested or issued any statements about government press restrictions in Texas. Doug Mills, a New York Times photographer who represents photographers in the WHCA, didn’t respond to requests for comment.