Reuters Denies Ethical Allegations, While Some Syria Photographs Still Questioned

Mar 18, 2014 Ethics
On the Reuters Web site, the caption for photograph number 8 of 15 images reads, "Issa, 10 years old, fixes a mortar launcher in a weapons factory of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, September 7, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib" The photographs are online at http://www.reuters.com/news/pictures/slideshow?articleId=USRTX13ER0#a=1
On the Reuters Web site, the caption for photograph number 8 of 15 images reads, "Issa, 10 years old, fixes a mortar launcher in a weapons factory of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, September 7, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib" The photographs are online at http://www.reuters.com/news/pictures/slideshow?articleId=USRTX13ER0#a=1

By Donald R. Winslow

DURHAM, NC (March 18, 2014) – In response to a story last week in The New York Times that raised serious ethical questions about the practices of some news photographers in Syria following the death last year in Aleppo of an 18-year-old Reuters freelancer, the news agency issued a statement denying the article’s allegations and refuting any wrongdoing. 

“Except for anonymous allegations backed by no specific examples, the story provides no evidence that Reuters photographers have staged photos in Syria or anywhere else,” the statement said. The response from Reuters is attributed to Barb Burg, the news agency’s global head of communications. 

“Staging photos is a firing offense, and Reuters would take appropriate action if we became aware of any instances of staging,” the statement said.

The response from Reuters addressed specifically the story in The New York Times which said that three photographers who worked for Reuters in Aleppo claimed that at times, when photographs didn't work out as hoped, some of the Reuters freelancers staged pictures. One of them directly admitted to a Times reporter that they had staged photographs. It was this situation that Reuters defended against any malpractice. However, in the aftermath of the Times report and the news agency’s rebuttal several picture editors have looked back over the Reuters photographic report from Aleppo with a more informed and questioning eye. And there are other examples of Reuters photographs from Syria that can be brought into question in relation to photographers’ ethics as well as the role that journalistic standards play in editing and distributing such images.

Molhem Barakat, 18, was killed in Aleppo on December 20, 2013, while working as a freelance photographer for Reuters. He died alongside his brother, Mustafa, a Tawhid rebel fighter, during a gun battle with Syrian government forces at the Kindi Hospital. In the aftermath, Barakat was identified by several news organizations as an “activist” who supported the rebel cause. It was also reported that Reuters was distributing photographs from Syria from additional photographers who had been identified as activists. In one instance, the photographer had also served as a spokesperson for the rebel fighters. As details about who was shooting photographs for Reuters in Aleppo came into better focus, it raised ethical questions in journalism circles about the credibility of using pictures shot by activists who are currently participating in Syria’s internal conflict. Based only on a photograph’s byline, and the historical credibility of Reuters and the news agency’s reputation, editors around the world cannot easily determine or verify who is shooting what in war-torn Syria. Nor do they know who is managing these photographers, or who might be editing their work and vetting the images for authenticity. 

Because the photographs came from Reuters there has been an implied assumption that the images met a strict standard of journalistic ethics. And yet last week in the Times article by James Estrin and Karam Shoumali, Reuters admitted that in some circumstances their photographers in Syria used pseudonym bylines (supposedly for personal security) and that in at least two instances the name used in a photograph's byline was a complete fabrication, crediting a photographer who does not exist.

With these ethical considerations in mind, one example of a set of photographs by a Reuters freelancer in Syria that have now been brought into question for their authenticity is a picture story called “Boy Rebel Makes Weapons.” The photographs are credited to Hamid Khatib and were transmitted on September 7, 2013, dateline Aleppo. 

The captions that accompany Khatib’s images state that a boy named “Issa” works in this bomb factory with his father 10 hours a day, every day except Friday. Another caption states the weapons factory is run by the Free Syrian Army, while another says that the boy is seen measuring a mortar shell on a manufacturing machine, and “fixing” [as in repairing] a mortar launcher, which is a large piece of artillery. Another photograph supposedly shows “Issa” assembling a “locally handmade mortar shell,” while several other pictures in the series show the child “fixing” the launcher again. One image near the end of the essay shows “Issa” seated on the floor of the factory's work area, assembling a handmade mortar by attaching the finned tail section to the body of the shell.

The captions bear no explanation about how a 10-year-old child knows how to build mortar shells and repair artillery. Also, there are no other workers seen in the empty, dimly lit warehouse. If this is indeed a rebels’ munitions factory there is no explanation of why a child is alone there, working and unsupervised. The photo essay has appeared on the pages of many Internet news sites, both as single images and in gallery slideshows, and today the photographs are easy to find with a simple Web search. 

Back in September when Khatib’s photographs hit the Reuters picture network there was a stir among photographers and editors who were tasked with covering Syria’s war. Many questioned the credibility of the images at the time. Reporters and photographers were sent out to find “Issa.” They came back saying they were unable to turn up the young boy.

Now, nearly six months later, some veteran freelance magazine and wire service photographers as well as their editors have spoken with News Photographer about Khatib’s pictures. They have done so under the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from either their own organization or from Reuters. 

Independently they tell virtually the same story: that shortly after publication they learned – either from men at the bomb factory, or from people in the nearby community – that “Issa” did not work there. A photographer in Aleppo who was sent to find the boy reported back to his editor that not only did the boy not work there, but that the pictures had been “set up.” Separately, an experienced wire service editor based in the Middle East who also sought to investigate “Issa” was told that not only were the pictures set up, but on the day the pictures were shot the child arrived at the location with the photographer.

After Khatib’s photographs were published, local “fixers” from the Free Syrian Army media center who work for foreign journalists also went to the factory looking for the child. The journalists the fixers work for were anxious to chase what looked like an extraordinary story, if true. But they were also told that the child was not there. And some members of the community who talked with the journalists who were searching for “Issa” expressed anger over the pictures, because they believed the images portrayed the rebels and their supporters in a bad light for having a child supposedly work in a bomb factory. 

In the end, those who went looking for "Issa" and later talked with News Photographer said they had no success finding the child. So it appears as if Khatib was the only photographer who saw the boy named "Issa" at the weapons factory. 

According to a statement from Reuters, Khatib went to the location as well as other spots on September 4, 2013, while working on a story about munitions and weapons factories. This is when he first saw “Issa,” Reuters told News Photographer. They say that editors at Reuters “thought the story of a child worker in a munitions factory was one that we could develop for our photographer App and Web site, ‘Wider Image,’ which features Reuters images expanded into deeper, more contextual stories.” The news agency says that Khatib was sent back to “spend the day with the father and his child on September 7.”

The Reuters response corroborates – in at least one respect – what was also being said in photojournalism circles in Aleppo – that Khatib made two visits to the bomb factory and that he had been sent back to the location a second time to focus on a story about the boy. 

“The photos of [the] boy in the factory in Aleppo were not staged,” Reuters told News Photographer on Monday in an additional statement. When first asked about the credibility of the images last week Reuters responded, “Setting up pictures is a firing offense, strictly against policy. It is the responsibility of Reuters’ chief photographers, photo desks in the region and the filing desk in Singapore to question every picture we serve to clients where a set-up is suspected. Reuters will not use any photographer, freelance or staff, who is found to have passed off a set-up picture as a spontaneous one.”

That brings into the spotlight questions regarding the role of editors in general and these photographs in particular. If a viewer looks at this set of images by Khatib without any caption information, the pictures appear rather innocuous. One could tell readers that it’s a young boy puttering around his father’s workplace and that would be believable. But captions tell readers what to think about a picture. And in this case it is the captions that state that a 10-year-old child “works” in a bomb factory, assembling munitions and “fixing” a mortar launcher that looks more like an artillery canon. Is it credible to ask readers to believe that a child is capable of these dangerous and skilled tasks?

So the deeper ethical question may not so much be whether a freelance photographer “set up,” actively or even passively, a set of photographs, but the paramount issue may be one of editorial practices. At what point in the publishing process were these captions reviewed and by how many editors? At any point did someone from Reuters ask whether these photographs and captions were credible and – more importantly – did anyone journalistically verify that these captions were accurate? In a war zone where a news organization feels that it’s too dangerous to send their own staff, journalists who are trained and who are held accountable for their ethics, is there now another less demanding standard for the activists who are shooting photographs for Reuters?

Reuters did not respond to specific questions asked about who edited or supervised Khatib’s images and captions before they were distributed. It’s the reported practice at Reuters that when there is no nearby regional picture desk, or during late overnight hours, the photographers shooting for Reuters file their images to a central picture desk in Singapore. From there the images are sent out to the picture clients.

“It is the duty of journalists to do everything they can to provide the necessary context to support the credibility of their work,” NPPA Ethics & Standards Committee chair Sean D. Elliot said today.

“Sadly, it has become all too easy to skimp on the context, leaving credibility in doubt. Our images must not lie, they must not depict situations that are not factual, and we must do everything we can – both in the taking of the photographs, in the editing, in the captions, and in the presentation – to ensure that they are factual, accurate, and that we do not leave anything open to doubt. Photojournalists must do this in the gathering of images, and then their editors have a responsibility to do it as well.”

The role of editing, of providing oversight and supervision for honest reporting – especially in captions that accompany photographs – may be key factors regarding whether readers (as well as other journalists) are apt to question the accuracy of what those images claim to portray. 

“It is the duty of the photojournalist and their editors to guarantee accuracy, and to ensure that there are no questions raised by shortcomings in the process,” Elliot said. “Where there are breakdowns, when an editor does not apply reasonable scrutiny and skepticism in the face of images that cry out for it, we end up in a situation where yet again all visual journalists suffer harm to our credibility because of the irresponsibility of a few.

“In the end, when enough questions are raised about the credibility of some images, it should be the responsibility of those who distribute such images to prove the veracity of their work,” Elliot said.

In response to the other allegations made last week in The New York Times story, a Reuters spokesperson said that using activists as photographers is “not a matter of policy” but that Syria is a unique challenge, because “it is hard to find any Syrian who is neutral.” 

They also defended their use of pseudonym bylines. “The use of pseudonyms is against Reuters policy except in the rare cases when using the photographer’s name, an anonymous “stringer” credit, or no credit would compromise the photographer’s safety,” Reuters said. The wire service claimed that the pseudonyms are also the names the photographers use to “live their lives ... they are the names by which they are known to most of their subjects.”

As for the slain teen photographer Molhem Barakat, Reuters denied the freelancer had been paid any bonus for his photographs appearing in The New York Times, or that any such bonus offer had ever been made. “No photographer at Reuters, staff or freelance, is paid a bonus based on special placement of their work,” they said. “We also have variable freelance rates, but they are driven by experience, expertise and quality, not play.”

And to the question about the ethics of putting a teenage photographer, a known activist, into a dangerous battle zone alongside his rebel fighter brother, Reuters replied, “In the specific case of Molhem, Reuters never encouraged him to put himself in harm’s way. In fact, his direct editor constantly gave his team the contrary message – exhorting them that ‘no photo was worth a life.’”

Reuters also said that on the night before the teenage was killed, his editor “specifically told Molhem not to go to the battleground where he died.”