How a Metafilter member caused the New York Times to pull down altered photos

new york times martinAdam Gurno does not have any particular expertise in photography or digitally altering photos, other than the fact that he has several kids and occaisionally uploads their pictures onto his computer. But when the Minnesota computer programmer was perusing through a photo slideshow at the New York Times’ website, one of the images caught his eye. Gurno has been a member of the Metafilter community since 2005, and yesterday during his lunch break he followed a link from there to the slideshow shot by Portuguese photographer Edgar Martins. The photographer had taken photographs around the United States of abandoned construction projects left unfinished because of the housing and securities market collapse.

“I was on a lunch break and I was paging through it, and I really liked it,” Gurno told me in a phone interview. “And then I was looking at the shot with just the framing, the half done house, a shot from the inside. And right at the top there was this tiny bit of wood, and it sort of set off a little internal alarm. We built our house a few years ago and I’ve seen houses being built, and I have a good idea of what a frame looks like … The angle on it seemed a bit unreal and it kind of made me say, ‘I don’t know, I think these are kind of fake.’ I kind of got the feeling it was. So I posted about it on Metafilter.”

Specifically, he wrote, “I call bullshit on this not being photoshopped,” a phrase he said he later regretted because it was so widely quoted. Gurno then went back to his day job work, but the entire episode continued to bother him, and he felt that he needed to provide more evidence. So he took the photo, split it right down the middle, and used Adobe to overlay the two halves together. Just as he suspected, the two shots were identical.

Essentially, the photographer had taken half a shot of the house and then mirrored it to make it look as if he had taken a shot of the entire frame. To try to cover up his work, he added in some features to try to mask the fact that both sides were basically the same.

“Then someone [on Metafilter] said, ‘hey, someone should send this to the New York Times,’ and I actually had that idea so I went to the New York Times and went to the contact page and emailed the public editor and I think the web editor,” he said. “I wrote something like, ‘I found this photo essay, and I looked at this picture and I think it’s been manipulated,’ and I think that’s all I said. I got the standard form response, saying, ‘thanks for contacting us, yada, yada, yada, we always read the stuff submitted.’ And then I went back to work, and in the evening I took care of my kids, had dinner with my wife, and went to bed. When I woke up I found that the New York Times had pulled it down, and a bunch of other sites started linking to it, and it sort of really blew up when I was gone.”

new york times photo

So what does this say about the web community’s ability to essentially act as a fact checker for mainstream media stories?

“When you do computer programing there’s an old maxim that to 10,000 eyes all bugs are shallow,” he replied. “It’s an open source thing. What it means is that if you have a lot of people looking at it they’ll find all the bugs in your program, and I think the same goes for this. If I wouldn’t have found it then someone else would have found it … and I think in this case I was the lucky one.”

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Metafilter accuses New York Times of digitally altering photos; Times removes the photos

The New York Times published photos by Portuguese photographer Edgar Martins who shot photographs around the United States of abandoned construction projects left unfinished because of the housing and securities market collapse.

When you go to the page where these photographs were published, you find this:

new york times photo

Who pointed out this alleged fakery? The community at Metafilter

I call bullshit on this not being photoshopped. Look at that wooden ‘triangle’ right near the top center.

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What does it take to be a multimedia journalist?



(Illustration: Steve Garfield)

I've had this discussion with a few people who currently practice in the general area that is "multimedia journalism." At the highest echelon, are you more journalist or programmer?

The New York Times' multimedia team explains in the latest Ask the Newsroom:

Aron Philofer:

As for learning these skills, there's some disagreement among those on my team with formal computer science backgrounds on whether taking computer science classes is worthwhile. Some say college courses are often too theoretical, but others believe that even the theory provides a solid foundation for problem solving. I wouldn't know because, like several other members of my team, I'm entirely self-taught. So I'm living proof that it's possible to learn enough to write a few production Web applications, manage a development team and not crash NYTimes.com (yet).

Gabriel Dance:

What I see far too often in journalism schools, and I feel is a mistake, is the idea that somebody can just learn computer programming in a semester or two. Developing interactives and projects on the Internet requires a love of computers and a deep interest in technology. Most of the time, people develop these skills on their own, or pursue a technology-related career. If you really feel that you want to be a journalist-programmer, I encourage you to take some courses in the computer science department. It will give you the foundation that you just can't get by taking a couple of Flash courses.

Steve Duenes:

The journalist portion of the journalist/programmer combination shouldn't be neglected. We've had a number of strong technological performers pass through our department, and some of them had difficulty knowing which information to pursue or how to pursue it efficiently. Some had interesting ideas, but they weren't able to fully articulate what they wanted to do, and as a consequence, they were frustrated when we had to make decisions about which graphics to go after.I'm not saying that a master's degree in journalism is the thing to do. It might be. But the important thing is to find an environment where you'll be pushed and where you can grow. If you're surrounded by a few people with good experience and if your internship or job requires you to behave like a journalist, that's good.

From my experience -- self-taught but not extensively so, thus better than the average new media graduate but poorer than the average programmer -- a journalism grad with new media experience is no longer the desired employee for the leading online publications (like the Times). More often, it is the programmer who took a few journalism courses, rather than the other way around.

The good news is that means the bar is much higher now, ever rising, and stories can and will be told with such depth and nuance thanks to a team that has mastered the tools needed to express them.

The bad news is that a new media journalism graduate who wants to work in multimedia won't be able to at the highest levels without some serious coding expertise under his or her belt. In other words: perhaps a master's degree in computer science will do you more good than one in journalism.

Advertiser Online Now, Get a Free Ad In Print

Just saw this house ad on NYTimes.com:

A print ad offered as added value for online advertising. Now THAT’S a reversal.

Here’s more:

NYT is trying to reverse the economic polarity of its business.

Is this kind of offer a trend?