The photo that cried wolf

A photo of a young Syrian refugee went viral with an inaccurate narrative attached

A few days ago, a four-year-old boy was photographed in the middle of the desert as he walked from Syria into Jordan. Except for a few United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees workers, seemingly in mid-rescue, he was all alone.

One of those UNHCR workers, Andrew Harper, posted a photo of the boy on his Twitter account with the caption “Here 4 year old Marwan, who was temporarily separated from his family, is assisted by UNHCR staff to cross #Jordan.” Marwan (which is not his real name) then made his way around the social media sphere when CNN anchor Hala Gorani tweeted the photo to her thousands of followers. Now Marwan’s story, per Gorani’s tweet, was that he was “crossing the desert alone after being separated from family fleeing #Syria,” and our hearts collectively broke. Gorani’s tweet was retweeted almost 10,000 times (Harper’s has been almost 1,500 times), and Marwan’s story appeared everywhere from the New York Daily News to Time (which wrote, “sometimes an image can cut through the fog to illustrate a simple truth in a way no amount of words or numbers ever could.”)

And then it turned out that Marwan wasn’t just “temporarily separated” from his family—he was also temporarily separated from reality, at least in the media’s retelling of his plight. As one of Gorani’s own co-workers tweeted the next day:

Harper would later claim that he never misrepresented anything. He said “temporarily separated,” which Marwan technically was. By about “20 steps,” a UNHCR press officer told the Guardian, which appeared to be the first news outlet to check the photo out rather than simply taking it as reportable fact. “He was a tiny bit behind his family. His family were ahead and he was just straggling behind. That’s the story. He didn’t enter as an unaccompanied minor … he was literally 20 steps behind.”

Not quite the same as “found wandering desert in Jordan,” which ABC reported (with a caption that erroneously quoted Harper as saying Marwan was “alone”). To make matters worse, a different UNHCR press officer told UK’s Mirror: “We think Marwan may have got lost during the night. At the moment we don’t know anything more.” That’s not true at all. The Mirror wrote a follow-up article but has yet to correct the original story.

It took Harper a day to clarify that Marwan was “safely reunited w his mother soon after being carried across the #Jordan border.”

And so, the story quickly changed from Marwan, the symbol of Syria’s devastating and seemingly unending civil war, to Marwan, the symbol of an at-best-careless and at-worst intentionally deceitful media.

Not to The New Republic’s Jason Farago, who wrote on Tuesday that though Marwan’s photo was “deceptive,” it still brought attention to the very real plight of thousands of Syrian children in a way that Harper’s previous tweets and photos of refugees had not, and therefore the photo’s veracity “doesn’t matter.”

But it does matter. The news is supposed to give its consumers information, not create fabricated narratives. That’s why the Associated Press fired a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer (and wiped all of his photos from its library) last month for slightly altering an image of the Syrian war. Lie in one photograph (even a lie by omission, as in Marwan’s case) and cast doubt on all of them.

“That Marwan was not what he seemed to be, that he was a refugee but not an orphan, is obviously regrettable,” Farago writes in one of the article’s odder arguments. First of all, it’s not “regrettable” that a child’s parent(s) are still alive. I doubt that’s what Farago meant; bad wording there. Second of all: No one ever said Marwan was an orphan in the first place. So now we’ve added yet another layer of misinterpretation to Marwan’s story.

“Images of war, though photographers would be loath to admit this, often work through sentimentalism,” Farago adds, pointing out that this is especially true in the age of social media, when sharing takes a backseat to verifying. Yes, but that doesn’t mean that deceptive photos, for whatever short-term good they may do or awareness they may spread, are not more harmful to their cause and photojournalism in the long run. Hoaxes don’t provide a “springboard” into “deeper engagement,” as Farago believes. As soon as we found out that Diane in 7A, the rude airplane passenger Elan Gale tweet-tormented last Thanksgiving, wasn’t real, the talk of being nice to strangers stopped and the thinkpieces about the quest for internet fame began. The fakery shut the conversation down. In both cases, the ends do not justify the means.

Farago argues that we are immediately suspicious of “sentimental” photos—like that of Marwan—because we doubt the power of photography and image. More likely, it’s because we’ve been fooled before. And now, thanks to the misleading language of a UN worker and the thoughtless (and unapologetic) retweeting of a CNN reporter, we’ve been fooled yet again. When legitimate photos of a little boy lost in the middle of the desert on his way to a refugee camp surface, no one is going to believe they’re real, so no one will care about his plight. Those are the photos that should matter, and they won’t.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.