October 21, 2014

News Photos: Has Lack of Context Reached a Tipping Point? (And Ferguson Protesters Did WHAT w US Flag?!)

One thing I’ve been writing about for years is how much meaning we lose when photos are presented with less and less context. This photo by St. Louis dispatch photographer David Carson is the latest concerning example. Certainly, the photo is so provocative and potentially incendiary that it’s worth an article of explanation on its own. It was taken outside the St. Louis Rams game on Sunday and appears to show two women — protesting the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson — banging a white male on his back with an American flag.

Lest one take the photo out of context however, Carson was quick to emphasize yesterday in numerous Twitter dialogues, that the caption sets the record straight. That caption reads:

Michael Brown protesters fight to regain control of a flag that was taken by a fan (right) leaving the Edward Jones Dome after the St. Louis Rams game in St. Louis on Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014. Several fights erupted in a confusing and hectic scene as fans and protesters mixed after the game. Two arrests were made. Photo By David Carson, dcarosn@post-dispatch.com

This caption is all well and good to those who would thoroughly absorb it. If you were a reader or subscriber to the St. Louis Dispatch, you would also have had the benefit of seeing the photo in the context of a 17 photo slideshow that depicts the clash between fans and protesters involving the upside down American flag (the sign of distress. The slideshow  represents the 34 second difference between when someone was poked by the flag in a melee and the incident where the fan stole the flag and the protesters wrestled it back.

Unfortunately though, these fine details and the fact the flag was pinched gets lost in two major details. One is the fact – ss reported in the St. Louis Dispatch story — that several black protesters were arrested for punching and spitting white fans while no one was held responsible on the other side. The second is the photo itself – which makes it look like Black protesters are using Old Glory for the purposes of assault.

To appreciate how easily nuance (and the facts behind the photo) can fly out the window in a situation like this, we need only examine its appearance and context on different news sites. Take this presentation in the (conservative) Washington Times, for example. Yes, Carson’s photo caption travels with the photo – at least the first half of it in small light gray type before a jump. Check out the headline with the picture though and you can see what I mean.

Then, there’s this tweet from the Dispatch’s own feed sans caption.

The more prevalent problem, however, involves the photo running on news sites around the country in an AP wire story consisting of four meager paragraphs, or 98 words. (You can read it here in the San Antonio Express News.) Yes, Carson’s point is technically valid — that the caption, traveling with the photo, does explain that the flag was stolen and recaptured. Not that anyone would know, however, that that there were extensive acts of assault between the two groups after which a black woman and her daughter were ultimately arrested, or that the protesters were gone when a reporter finally arrived. Rather, the AP story boils the entire episode down to one detail — a detail that blatantly confuses Carson’s caption — relating how the protesters tried to jab a Ram fan with the flagpole.

Maybe what we’re talking about here is many people behaving badly. Essentially what we have from a media standpoint, however — a picture worth a thousand words, and the caption not that many — are black people rampaging with Old Glory.

Update: Especially for those not familiar with Bag, there can be some confusion as to our role. Are we investigative journalists or are we media analysts and critics?  In the past two years, we have put a lot of attention to this and elaborate further below in response to an inquiry from David Carson.

(photo: David Carson/St. Louis Post Dispatch)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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