The photo of a nearly 2-year-old Honduran girl sobbing while she and her mother were detained at the U.S. border has become a cultural touchstone in the debate over immigration. Photographer John Moore was a few feet away when he snapped the iconic frame and said it was one of the most emotionally draining photos he has taken in his career. Moore said at the time he did not know if the girl and her mother had been split up, as the government’s policy at the time was one of family separation. It turned out the girl and her mother had not been split up and that she had stopped crying once her mother picked her up.
All of this made Time magazine’s decision to up the ante with this cover concerning to people across the journalistic spectrum:
The photo illustration has led media outlets to call the cover a mistake or worse. Time’s editor recently defended the publication’s cover, even after it ran a correction about it, saying the girl became “the face of the story.” With all of this in mind, consider a few thoughts:
The face of WHAT story: The defense editor Edward Felsenthal offers about the girl being the face of the story depends on what you see as “the story.” She’s not the face of family separation at the border, as everyone found out later in the process. She’s possibly the face of children of people who try to enter the country illegally under this administration. She’s definitely the face of what happens when toddlers are hungry, thirsty or over-tired, which is what her mother explained to the border patrol. The problem with this cover is that it leaves too much open to interpretation and it appears that the story Time thought it was telling at the time turned out to be inaccurate.
Ethics and accuracy: In the ethics chapter, we broke apart several of the big journalism organization’s ethical codes into some key areas of agreement, one of which was accuracy:
Journalists view accuracy as their primary professional value. The RTDNA code places “truth and accuracy above all” while the NPPA code dictates that journalists should “be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.” SPJ notes that, “ethical journalism should be accurate and fair.” When journalists fall short on accuracy, they open themselves to accusations of sloppiness and bias, both of which undercut their credibility.
Early in the discussion of the photo itself, Moore said he didn’t know what happened to the girl and her mother in terms of separation but feared the worst. However, it didn’t take long for multiple outlets to find out from governmental and family sources that the girl was not separated from her mom. As a national magazine, Time probably has the resources to check this out and should have.
This nails why Time screwed up: It wasn’t accurate and comprehensive in its use of this visual. It also didn’t place truth and accuracy above all else (although some might argue it told a larger “truth” that overrode the issue of pure “accuracy). However, it’s important to consider this line from the RTNDA’s code:
The facts should get in the way of a good story. (emphasis in the original) Journalism requires more than merely reporting remarks, claims or comments. Journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional information.
Instead of looking at this from a perspective of “Does this fully and accurately reflect the reality of this situation?” Time decided to “go for it” with a visually stunning and iconic cover. In doing so, there’s a trade off between nuanced accuracy and guttural emotion. In terms of accuracy and ethics, it seems like a bad trade.
Corrections and Accountability: The ethical codes used in the text all espouse accountability. Making a mistake sucks. Having to tell people you made one really sucks. However, the ethics of the field demand this of us for a good reason:
The RTDNA code states, “Ethical journalism requires owning errors, correcting them promptly and giving corrections as much prominence as the error itself had.”
It might seem counterintuitive that telling people you made mistakes will make them trust you more. However, journalists and researchers have found that audience members trust people more when they acknowledge and correct their mistakes. This is why SPJ states simply and clearly: “Acknowledge mistakes and correctly them promptly and prominently.”
However, there’s a difference between correcting the record and being accountable for a mistake in a couple specific ways. For example, you can correct the record while holding others accountable for their screw ups. I know I’ve run at least a few, “Due to inaccurate information released by X Police Department…” corrections because something went wrong upstream from me and I ended up publishing something incorrect. That’s legitimate when it’s clearly someone else’s fault. However, when you screw up and it’s your screw up, you should both correct the record and be accountable for your actions.
In Time’s case, the editor tries to have it both ways: Correct the record but say we were right anyways. In defending the decision to run the cover, the editor talks around the accuracy issue with the “nobody in the media knew” arguments. He also argues that this was more symbolic of a larger issue that goes beyond one girl and one moment.
If journalism is really about telling people what happened and why they should care, we have to be willing to do that as well when we screw up. I would have had much more respect for the guy (and the controversy would likely die down more quickly) if he had said something like, “Look, we probably should have vetted this more and if we didn’t know for sure she was separated, we should have gone with a different shot. That’s on me.” He could have said, “Had we done more with text on the front to provide nuance and layers, people might not be so upset and that’s on me.” Heck, he could have said pretty much anything better than what he said about this if you wanted accountability. In that interview, he almost walks back the correction in a way, explaining they technically didn’t correct the cover.
A good lesson to take away from this is simple: If you screw up, own it.
Could be worse: As much as this is the outrage du jour, this isn’t the first time that Time magazine had a cover that fell on its keys. The classic example is the “darkening” of O.J. Simpson’s mugshot, but here are a couple other covers Time probably wishes came with a “do-over” option:
In 1938, Hitler strikes a reflective pose for his “Man of the Year” cover. No, really, that happened…
The “Look! Smart Asians!” cover was another head-scratcher…
And of course, who can forget the cover that asked the question:
No… No, I am not… But here is an interesting follow up from Jamie Grumet in 2016 about her experiences in being “the breastfeeding mom” on that cover.