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:
Broader question re: Marwan is: was it necessary to play up an admittedly moving image when facts alone are disturbing enough? #Syria— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) February 18, 2014
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.