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  • Writer's pictureChris Mads

Racism or incompetence? Check your damn photos

I was introduced to my first real journalism mistake within a few hours of starting my first day as a reporter.

I was sat trying to learn my way around the computer system when one of my new colleagues remarked that it was nice to see how quiet the phones were today.

This seemed an odd thing to be pleased about. It turned out that the paper had recently been inundated with calls following a front page story about Prince Edward, which had been illustrated with an image of Price Andrew.

Now, over the last decade or so I have made my fair share of journalistic errors. I know how it feels and I hate to compound that for anyone. Realising you have published something which is fundamentally wrong gives you a horrible sinking feeling which sits in your gut for the rest of the day – or week, or month, depending on the nature of the error.

But that personal sorrow does not lift away the fact that you have screwed up. You have to correct it quickly and – just as importantly – you have to not do it again.

The number of times in the last week that a story about a black celebrity has been illustrated with a picture of the wrong celebrity suggests that no one is learning any lessons from this.

In the last few days, singer Denise Johnson’s obituaries in the Guardian, Mirror and NME (to name a few) have been published with the picture of a different black, female singer.

And yesterday, Owen Jones’ column in the Guardian – about how newspapers have been “peddling prejudice for years”, no less – has referenced Wiley and used a photo of Kano. Jones has quickly clarified that he did not choose or approve the photo but says he understands the anger.

As well he should. You simply couldn’t make this stuff up. But I think I speak for most of journalism when I say I really wish someone had.

I wish both of these were made up. I wish either of them was a storm in a teacup rather than an actual error. I really wish they were the only times it has happened.

In 2017, an Irish newspaper illustrated a back page story about Romelu Lukaku with a photo of Stormzy. In 2015, ITV used footage of Ainsley Harriott in a story about Sir Lenny Henry.

Those examples are just off the top of my head.

This is inescapably a race issue. A lot of people are saying that at a time like this, with Black Lives Matter at the forefront of social discourse, mistakes like this cannot and should not be happening.

The truth is even bigger than that: These mistakes should never be happening. They are symbolic of either systemic incompetence merged with casual racism, or systemic racism merged with casual incompetence or a horrible and heady mixture of both.

Anyone publishing something should feel responsible for what they are putting out into the world. If you are relying on someone else to check that what you have created is correct, then you are not doing your job.

I am not an innocent here. As I say, I have made my share of mistakes, but for the mass media machine to make the same one again and again is unforgivable.

The usual call for heads to roll will come. Excuses will be found; I presume the Denise Johnson picture was mislabelled from an agency. But that does not change the fact that someone is responsible for the mistake.

Someone, somewhere has that sinking, sickening feeling that says they should not have let this happen. Now they have to pass it on to others. Everyone has to learn from this. It cannot happen again.

In summary: Check your facts and check your damn photos.*

[* I do not just direct this to the mainstream media. Anyone who wants to be an authority or a sensible voice in any online forum must hold themselves to a higher standard of basic accuracy than a drunk person posting randomly on a Friday night.]


Mr Chatterbox is the Millennial Gent soapbox. A spot to disucss and opine on the issues of the day.

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