What’s Wrong with This Picture?

When the man you think is Kim Jong Il's son isn't

South Korean construction worker Bae Seok-bum is used to being teased about his uncanny resemblance to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. His friends sometimes call him “Comrade Chairman.” He takes it in stride, and at one point uploaded a photo of himself to a Web site in order to show people how much he looks like the Dear Leader. That’s where things got weird.

Last Wednesday, TV Asahi broadcast Bae’s look-alike photo all over Japan. The station reported that the photo showed Kim Jong Un, the youngest of Kim Jong Il’s three sons and the man expected to become the new leader of the country. (Some people have jokingly called him Lil’ Kim, though his father reportedly prefers “Brilliant Comrade.”) This was big scoop; no one had seen a recent picture of Kim Jong Un since he was a child.

Here’s how the station sourced its use of the photo:

The television network explained that one of its reporters had received the digital image from a “person related to South Korea’s authorities” and had shown it to another source, who had said it was “90 percent” likely to be of the younger Kim.

In later news programmes, TV Asahi modified the source to a “reliable person in South Korea,” after the South Korean embassy protested that “authorities” could be taken to mean a government official was involved, a network spokesman said.

By Thursday, it was clear that the station had made a mistake. “We have come to believe that there is high probability that the picture is of another person,” it admitted. Bae Seok-bum soon appeared on one of TV Asahi’s competitors to talk about how his picture ended up being mistaken for that of the future leader of North Korea.

Photo misidentifications are all too common, but the photo scoop is another matter entirely. It gets primary placement, often ending up on the front page. The shot of Elian Gonzales cowering in a closet was an example of a bona fide photo scoop. Often, though, they take the form of this recent example: an exclusive photo of someone noteworthy who hasn’t been seen in a very long time.

When Howard Hughes had closed himself off from the world, any photo of him would have fetched large sums. After all, his fake autobiography certainly did.

The problem, of course, lies in how you go about verifying a photograph of someone who hasn’t been seen in years or decades. If you’re right, it’s a big scoop. Get it wrong and suddenly you become the story. The bigger the scoop, the bigger the risk.

The mistake made in Japan reminded me of the Hughes autobiography hoax, but it also made me think about a Chicago mobster by the name of Joey “The Clown” Lombardo.

In April of 2005, the Chicago Tribune had its own rare photo scoop. It published a front page picture of a dapper-looking older gentleman riding a bicycle while smoking a cigar. Above the photos was the headline “Have you seen this ‘Clown?’”

The accompanying story reported that the paper had obtained a photo of Lombardo, a mobster who at the time was the subject of an international manhunt. In fact, the photo, which had been taken a year earlier by a college student before being sold to the paper, showed a man named Stanley Swieton. From the Tribune’s apologetic article about its mistake:

The photo that ran on the front page of Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune was, in fact, of a dapper old man.

But he wasn’t Joseph “The Clown” Lombardo.

He was Stanley Swieton, 69, a soft-spoken Chicagoan who never figured he’d make the front page of the newspaper…

“I couldn’t believe it,” Swieton said Wednesday, after seeing the picture–of himself–pedaling down Grand Avenue dressed in a hat and overcoat. “I don’t want anything to do with the mob.”

There are other examples of errant photo scoops. There was the U.K. paper that had to pulp over 100,000 copies of an issue because it thought it had a scoop with the photo of the so-called “Lotto rapist.” Or the Brazilian paper that mistook a photo from a film shoot for a candid shot of heavily-armed drug traffickers in action.

At their core, photo scoops are usually about media self-glorification rather than providing essential news. If Kim Jong Un really is going to be the next leader of North Korea, he’ll show his face at some point.

Revealing him to the world is a great way to make news, but so too is being wrong about it.

Correction of the Week

“An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Buffington’s special support hose as ‘mercury-lined.’ The hose are mercury-gauged, meaning that barometric mercury is used to measure the compression of the hose. They are not mercury-lined which would, of course, make them poisonous. I regret the error. — SR” – The Sunday Paper

Know Your Columnists

“A June 16 A-section article incorrectly said that a column in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper was written by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It was written by a Haaretz columnist.” – Washington Post

Parting Shot

“Wallpaper* is not Conde Nast’s trendier-than-thou lifestyle mag, as we said in a Media Monkey item (13 June, page 4, MediaGuardian). It is IPC’s trendier-than-thou lifestyle mag.” – The Guardian

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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.