The Media Today

There’s no wisdom in crowd photos

April 29, 2020

In recent weeks, with much of the world under orders to stay at home, many members of the public have been twitchy about people breaking the rules. In New Zealand, a police website crashed under the weight of civilians signing on to report violators—part of what Time magazine referred to, in a headline, as a global “snitching epidemic.” Since lockdown orders started coming into force, outrageous-looking images of people flouting them—or appearing to flout them—have rocketed around social media. The US news media hasn’t been immune to the trend. In mid-March, CNN’s Jake Tapper had harsh words for people seen going about their business in San Francisco following a shelter-in-place order. “The selfishness of people who are not taking this seriously is—it’s just maddening,” he said. “Who the hell are you to be walking around just giving this to old people?” Since the weekend, we’ve seen a slew of stories and photos picturing people on beaches in California, Florida, and Texas in sunny weather. Yesterday, numerous outlets—from Patch to The Sun—scolded people on the East Coast for blowing off social distancing to watch an aerial salute to caregivers from the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. Images from a rabbi’s funeral in Brooklyn provoked similar headlines. Often, such stories have amplified warning messages from those in power.

To be clear, not all such images are equal. Some people—both as individuals and in groups—clearly are behaving in ways that endanger themselves and others. Stopping the spread of the coronavirus requires collective discipline, and blatant infringements thereupon can be a legitimate magnet for journalistic scrutiny. All too often, however, outraged reactions to crowd photos are reflexive and misplaced. Taken together, they risk creating a narrative of widespread disobedience that is just wrong, or at least devoid of important social context.

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

Firstly, photos of crowded public spaces don’t always show what they appear, at first glance, to show. Ten days ago, amid a controversy over the perceived overcrowding of beaches around Jacksonville, Florida, WJXT, a local TV station, demonstrated that different cameras and shot angles can give very different impressions of how close people are to one another. “If you take the miles of beaches up and down Duval County, there were indeed thousands of people,” Vic Micolucci, a reporter and anchor with WJXT, wrote on Facebook. “However, most kept their distance. And there was a lot of sand.” This week, Joey D’Urso, a media reporter for BuzzFeed News, posted a similar piece pouring cool water on beachfront photos from the UK, where Peter Kyle, a left-wing lawmaker, accused the media of using misleading images to lie about people’s behavior. In Denmark, a pair of photographers, Ólafur Steinar Gestsson and Philip Davali, consciously used different cameras and perspectives to snap otherwise identical scenes. Their photos, which the broadcaster TV2 published side-by-side, are striking. One, a telephoto shot by Davali, appears to show people standing in a tightly-compressed line and breathing down each other’s necks. A second, wide-angle shot by Gestsson shows that the people are, in fact, widely spaced out. (The photos have been shared thousands of times on Twitter, including via a post from the media analyst Thomas Baekdal.)

Even photos that do show real violations of social-distancing guidelines can paint an incomplete picture. Such images often imply irresponsibility of motive; sometimes, they say as much outright, in accompanying text. (Over the weekend, the UK edition of Metro shared a story about people lining up to buy ice cream with the words, “FFS guys.”) But the person who camps out in front of their statehouse to call social-distancing rules fascism, for instance, is not the same as the person strolling past on their daily walk—and a photo may not show that difference. Population density matters, too—people who live on a crowded city block will naturally encounter more people when they go outside than people who live in the countryside, making the former riper for shaming than the latter. (Earlier this month, Sky News asked people in a London park if they weren’t concerned about breaking official advice. “Of course,” one bemused interviewee, who said she was out for a walk, replied. “But I’m keeping my distance from people.”) What about people who linger outdoors? Such conduct is likely not advisable right now. But many people—particularly those who are economically disadvantaged—don’t have gardens where they can relax, or a roof deck from which to watch the Thunderbirds. Do they really deserve our scorn? What about people who are outside escaping abusive partners?

There’s also the problem of which behaviors the press chooses to spotlight. News coverage, quite rightly, has a bias toward problems and unacceptable conduct. In normal times, people obeying the rules isn’t a story. But these aren’t normal times—the rules are exceptionally burdensome right now, and widespread compliance with them is arguably a much bigger deal than sporadic, context-dependent disobedience. Yet a photo of a thousand people on the beach in California is more enticing—and, of course, more takeable—than a photo of millions of people sitting in their front rooms watching television.  

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It’s a cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. It can be—but when it comes to the flouting, or apparent flouting, of lockdown rules, a thousand words is better than a picture. Sometimes, such images do highlight legitimate problems. Often, however, they’re lazy clickbait. At worst, they’re dangerous. It’s one thing to state that social distancing is essential right now, and advise people as to how they can do it effectively. Visual snitching on random people—whose motives and home situations are unknown to us—is quite another. The politicians whose job it is to get us all outside again safely—many of whom are failing abjectly at that job right now—are a more useful target for our scrutiny, and outrage. We aren’t the lockdown police.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • Department of “cosmic irony”: On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the majority of local newspapers in the US haven’t been able to access the federal Paycheck Protection Program because they’re owned by bigger publishing companies that don’t qualify as small businesses. That, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton notes, is highly ironic. “The entire argument behind newspaper chains… is that centralization allows for cost-cutting that can sustain higher levels of net revenue than a solo paper could on its own,” he writes. “Except in this case, it’s the chains’ very size that is their handicap. Instead of ‘too big to fail,’ they’re too big to support.” In other PPP news, Axios—the venture-backed news site that qualified for a $4.8-million loan and was criticized, in many quarters, for taking it—pledged to return the money. Its CEO, Jim Vandehei, said the site found alternative funding, and that PPP has “become divisive.”
  • Speaking of Axios: Sara Fischer, a media reporter with Axios, writes that the coronavirus has been a boon for business and financial news, which has overtaken politics as the top news category in the US for the first time in several years. News sites including Fox Business, CNN Money, and the Journal have seen rapid growth, Fischer reports, while Bloomberg says that it’s daily new-subscriber rate quadrupled in March.
  • Border issues: For CJR’s Year of Fear series, Sandra Sanchez reports, from South Texas, that coverage of the border has been upended by the pandemic. “I have not been able to cross the border since its closure, and I now rely on phone calls and social media updates on the asylum-seeking migrants whom I used to visit regularly,” she writes. “They rely on donations and volunteers coming in from Brownsville, Texas, to keep them alive while they wait for their immigration hearings, which have all been postponed.”
  • Department of “magical thinking”: Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman has an extraordinary, behind-the-scenes account of the Trump administration’s botched initial response to the coronavirus. Per Sherman, Trump told aides, in early March, that he feared journalists would try and contract the virus on purpose so they could pass it on to him, and said that the Justice Department should investigate media companies for manipulating the stock market with their reporting.
  • “No”: On Monday, the hard-charging media lawyer Charles Harder—who was recently tapped by the Trump campaign to sue several major outlets—wrote, on behalf of Fox’s Sean Hannity, to the New York Times, threatening legal action over columns and stories that criticized Hannity for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus. Yesterday, David McCraw, a lawyer for the Times, wrote back. “In response to your request for an apology and retraction,” McCraw told Harder, “our answer is ‘no.’” 
  • “Fairness and integrity”: A panel of experts led by Rick Hasen, an election-law specialist at the University of California, Irvine, compiled a report listing “urgent recommendations in law, media, politics, and tech” that could boost public confidence during an election season that will be shaped by the present crisis. The report argues that news outlets should work to temper public expectations about electoral processes. “Delays in election reporting are to be expected, not evidence of fraud,” it says. “The 2020 presidential election may be ‘too early to call’ until days after election day.”
  • The kids are alright: Sam Stein reports, for the Daily Beast, on exasperated children who are struggling to communicate the risks of the coronavirus to parents who consume right-wing media. “Younger offspring expressed concern [that] their parents are stubbornly set in their ways,” Stein writes. “Family members based in urban areas experienced panic that their relatives in the ex-urbs don’t share. And those who don’t watch Fox News felt it impossible to relate to their family members who do.” Elsewhere, the Washington Post reports that young children are producing their own newspapers to help them get through the lockdown. Some examples are featured here.
  • In brief: Anna Merlan reports, for Vice, that “bleach ingestion advocates” see Trump’s recent comments as a “MAJOR OPPORTUNITY” for their cause. WGN 720-AM, a radio station in Chicago, will ban on-air talk of the coronavirus on Friday—except for during newscasts—to give listeners a break; if a caller or host brings it up, they’ll get “zapped like the opening scene of Ghostbusters.” Robert Feder has more. And Will Reeve, a reporter for ABC News (and son of Christopher Reeve), called into Good Morning America without putting on pants—and the chyron department did not cover for him.

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Why the Left Can’t Stand the New York Times

Update: Language about Ólafur Steinar Gestsson’s and Philip Davali’s photos has been clarified.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.