Consider three images from the last couple of weeks:

1. President Barack Obama finishes his address announcing the killing of Osama Bin Laden and walks away from the cameras. After a brief break, he walks back down the same carpet and begins re-reading lines from the speech so that five photojournalists can snap shots of him. When distributing the images, many news organizations note that the photos of Obama were taken after the actual speech, but people often don’t notice the disclaimer. Yesterday, the White House announces that this practice of re-enactment would no longer take place.

2. In the days immediately after the announcement of the death of bin Laden, newspapers and other news organizations in different parts of the world publish a photo of what they declare is the face of the dead terrorist. It depicts him as blackened, bloodied and disfigured. It’s also a fake.

3. The White House releases an official photo showing President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other key members of the administration and military in the situation room as the raid on Bin Laden’s compound takes place. It’s published the world over, including by two ultra-Orthodox Jewish newspapers in Brooklyn. Except that for religious reasons Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason are Photoshopped out of the image.

Three important, iconic images attached to a big story. The first was staged, the second was faked, and the third was later manipulated to remove key players from history. Taken together, they offer a powerful reminder of the challenges of determining visual authenticity in the age of Photoshop.

“There are two issues: First is the ease with which images can be manipulated; and in addition we’re seeing a sort of a slide into the consumer area where manipulation of images is becoming acceptable,” said Santiago Lyon, AP’s director of photography, echoing comments he made last month at the MIT Media Lab. “There is this sort of notion that image manipulation is somehow acceptable and I think that has very serious ramifications for the perception of the credibility of photojournalistic imagery, which has to be accurate and complete.”

While talking with Lyon, I realized I manipulate images a few times a week when I apply different filters to my Instagram photos. He also noted that today’s digital cameras often come with build-in features and filters that enhance and manipulate images with the push of a button. As for the capabilities of our home PCs, Microsoft dedicated a recent TV ad to selling the fact that you can swap out the heads of people in order to get the perfect family photo.

Photo manipulation—it’s not just for experts anymore!

Yes, the tools of image fabrication and manipulation are widely available and highly promoted. The skills to use them are easily attainable. If you are a professional designer or photographer or a dedicated amateur, the possibilities are endless, the handiwork increasingly difficult to identify.

But what about the tools and skills for detecting these manipulations before they spread online or are used by news organizations?

AFP and Tungstene

When it came to the fake photo of a dead Bin Laden, Agence France-Presse turned to Tungstene, a piece of software developed by Roger Cozien, a Paris-based criminology and photo analysis expert. (If you can read French, this story offers a detailed analysis of the faked photo. Caution: graphic images.)

Tungstene was described in a press release from AFP this week as “high-technology image interpretation software which combs through the information contained in digital images to detect potential tampering. Using a suite of filters, it can identify tell-tale discrepancies in pixels and analyse harmonisation of light and colour.”

The news agency announced it is using Tungstene to check certain photos for signs of manipulation or enhancement. As for AP, Lyon said they often turn to noted digital forensics expert Dr. Hany Farid when their internal experts require additional testing and analysis. (I contacted Reuters to see what they use, but didn’t receive a reply.)

Mladen Antonov, AFP’s photo editor-in-chief, told Stinky Journalism this week that part of the reason for implementing Tungstene was the growing use of images from social media and sources other than professional photographers.

“There are still parts of the world where journalists are not allowed to witness the events happening and we relay on hand-out images given often from the same regimes that close the doors for the independent press,” Antonov said. “In such cases all images are passing special tests.”

Lyon also said AP is increasingly handling and sourcing images from new kinds of sources, though it represents a small percentage of the photos it distributes.
Contacted in Paris, Cozien said the high end version of his analysis software takes roughly thirty minutes to process an image, and that this must be done by a trained analyst. (An extremely important image requiring the best possible evaluation can take twice that length, he said.) Roughly eight AFP employees in different parts of the world have been trained to use the software, according to Cozien.

“The software gives lots of results, but an operator has to analyze the results,” he said, comparing it to way a trained technician is required to operate an x-ray machine. “Anyone who buys the software needs to have the training and it [takes] at least one full week.”
A related product from Cozien’s company can batch process images and flag suspect files, which then need further examination. But the batches aren’t yet large enough to accommodate all of the images from a service like AFP, or the tens of thousands per day that flow through AP. At this moment in their evolution, photo analysis programs can only be used for spot checks or special situations. (On the bright side, at least that’s a more common use than what news organizations do when it comes to the widely-available plagiarism detection services.)

Human Factor

One key factor in detecting image manipulation is the human element, which is another reason why we’re unlikely to soon see wide scale use of photo analysis by news organizations.

“It’s beyond just the technical aspects of a photo,” Lyon said when explaining how his organization determines the authenticity of images sourced from citizens or those unfamiliar to AP.

Lyon listed a range of questions asked of the source of a photo when evaluating an image of unknown or undetermined origin: “Who is the photographer? Where were they? Why were they there? Do they have other images they can show us taken before and after the image we’re interested in? And what can we do to get certain questions answered about the provenance of the image that put us more at ease?”

Another reason the human factor is essential - and why asking questions of a source can often trump technical analysis - is the images themselves. Lyon said low resolution images, like those taken by cameras inside basic cell phones, are harder to analyze using software.

“The minute an image is lowered in resolution, that it falls under a certain threshold, it becomes almost impossible to run any kind of program to detect manipulation,” Lyon said. “A big image with a lot of detail can be more closely analyzed than an image of 60 or 70k…and so sometimes what happens, and this is a confusing aspect of it, on the Internet you get a lot of low res images floating around and it’s difficult to understand what’s been done to them and where they come from.”

The old cliché is that a picture is worth a thousand words. In today’s world of ubiquitous cameras and tools for photo manipulation, it seems a picture is also often worth a thousand questions.

“In the face of the ease of the scam there is a need on the part of all journalists to never assume anything and to always cross-check and verify in order to remain trusted sources of news and information,” Lyon said.

Correction of the Week

An item in the Extra Bases baseball notebook last Sunday misidentified, in some editions, the origin of the name Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver, which Mets pitcher R. A. Dickey gave one of his bats. Orcrist was not, as Dickey had said, the name of the sword used by Bilbo Baggins in the Misty Mountains in “The Hobbit”; Orcrist was the sword used by the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield in the book. (Bilbo Baggins’s sword was called Sting.) -The New York Times

[Update: the headline of this post originally read “Notes on Photo Fraud.” After some objections, we have changed it. —ed.]

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.