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News: The No Spin Zone

The French news agency AFP stirred controversy earlier this week when it ran a photo of an Iraqi woman whose home had been affected by the coalition siege on Sadr City in Baghdad. The photo showed the woman holding two bullets that she claimed had hit her house when coalition forces raided the predominantly Shiite neighborhood. Within hours of the photo being posted, bloggers began to point out the discrepancies.

In the photo, the woman holds the two bullets that the photo caption indicates were supposedly fired at her house. However, the rounds were still in their shell casings, suggesting that they had not been fired. Moreover, the bullets appeared to be in perfect condition, rather than being flattened by impact. The photographer, Wissam al-Okaili, had submitted a similar photo on July 10 of a woman holding a round she claimed had hit her bed during a coalition raid. While the shell casing was not visible in this photo, bloggers quickly pointed out that the bullet showed no sign of having been deformed by impact, and no striations that would have indicated it had been discharged through the grooved barrel used in military firearms. Once again, the round appears not to have been fired.

Soon after the maelstrom of blogger criticism, AFP corrected the photo caption to indicate that the rounds were unspent, but failed to acknowledge the mistake in the original caption. The agency has yet to release a statement about the photo.

Another scandal developed soon after, when AFP tagged a photo on the BBC website as their own, when it was actually taken by an independent photographer.

AFP is not the first news agency to draw criticism for the veracity of its photos. In August of last year, worldwide news agency Reuters admitted to having run several altered photos during the Israeli air strikes on Lebanon. One photo purported to show an Israeli aircraft firing missiles at Lebanese targets. However, the photo actually showed the aircraft dropping a decoy flare used to deflect surface-to-air missiles. Another photo showed plumes of smoke rising over a Lebanese residential settlement, but several watchdog groups pointed out that the smoke had been added in Photoshop. Reuters quickly pulled the photos, suspended the photographer and issued an apology.

One interesting development to arise from such controversies is the role of the blogosphere as a public media watchdog and new level of accountability. Though most political blogs have a clear and polarizing agenda, the increasing influence of these blogs points to a greater democratization of the news dissemination process.

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However, this increased democratization comes with its own set of risks. Two weeks ago, Wired magazine ran an online expose of companies tampering with entries on Wikipedia, a user-submitted encyclopedia. Two prominent media outlets, Fox News and the New York Times, were among those who had edited the content of articles, not only to cast their companies in a favorable light, but to cast their rivals unfavorably.

Such controversies have led many to question the reliability of news sources. Bloggers on both sides of the political spectrum have accused the mainstream media of gross bias and deliberate falsification. Yet, the blogosphere itself is also rife with misinformation. These incidents leave many wondering how they can obtain reliable information about a global situation from which most are so far geographically removed. As further instances of media indiscretions come to light, people must work harder than ever to discern the truth.

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