Metadata, objectivity and emotion

This has ended up a longer post than intended, with many links. I started writing it with only the germ of an idea and no clear idea where it might lead me,  as I struggled to make some sense of recent events as they unfolded, and read various related blogs and news items. It makes no startling conclusions, but might foster some thoughts about where technology has taken us, and where it may in future lead us.

‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’, one of my favourite aphorisms, drummed into me by my dad, who taught me that in debate and discussion, the minute you rely only on emotion you hand the reins of argument to your opponent to drive the debate forwards. Better he said to lean on the ‘big stick’ of a well reasoned argument, and make your point quietly but with authority, than to rely only on an easily-dismantled emotional one.

Events of the last few weeks in the Middle East have raised some interesting questions about emotion and ‘objectivity’ in news reporting.

Jon Snow spoke passionately about the desperate situation in Gaza, and was praised in some quarters, and roundly condemned in others. In response to Snow, Charlie Beckett, writing in his piece “Should news get personal? Emotion and objectivity in the face of suffering” said:

“It’s impossible to make cast-iron rules about this sort of thing. Journalism is a craft not a science. Personally, I think that the best TV reporters actually under-write and let the images and victims’ own voices speak for themselves.

Certainly, human interest can be a great way to connect viewers or readers to remote victims of injustice or violence. However, when the journalist’s own emotions become part of the narrative then there’s a danger of losing trust.

Displaying such feeling may actually play into the hands of the next Israeli spokesperson interviewed on Channel 4 News. And viewers more sympathetic to Israel may also wonder if his heart is in it when he has to take other sides to task.”

In a more condemnatory post David Loyn wrote in the Guardian “Jon Snow’s Gaza appeal risks reducing reporting to propaganda”:

At the same time, from a slightly different direction, Jon Snow used a Channel 4 studio, but not the channel itself, to show how reporting from Gaza had emotionally affected him. His call on YouTube was for engagement from his audience, promising “Together we can make a difference”…………..

……In his appeal, Snow said the world had shown it was not that interested in the death of children in Gaza. Almost three-quarters of a million hits showed that many were interested. But how did they know enough to care? Not from reporters who had put their emotions on show. Instead, the horrors of Gaza have been bravely narrated by reporters fully equipped with compassion and empathy, but not wallowing in their own feelings.

All of this (and much more) got me thinking about ‘objectivity’ and ‘detachment’ in journalism, and wondering how we actually measure this in photojournalism. I guess in written/spoken journalism ‘bias’ or rather  ’emotional bias’ is easier to spot – as the Jon Snow example demonstrates.

But what of photography? The same seething anger might be coursing through a photographer’s brain, driving instinctive adrenaline-fueled shutter-button-presses. What of these images, made more from outrage than calm and reasoned rationality: can we accept them? Or do they also somehow become ‘tainted’ by emotion, and thus easily dismissed as simply more propaganda? Of course they may be dismissed after the fact, depending on their end use, but what of their actual taking?

Truth is it’s very easy to dismiss photographs – David Frum did so this week, (wrongly as it turns out) and later apologized. BagNewsNotes has a good analysis of the controversy. Frum condemned these images because he considered their content ‘untrustworthy’, a deduction based not on the emotional content (although this was crucial to their importance as ‘news’, hence his pressing need to publicly denigrate them),  but based on his ‘analysis’ of their content and on their ‘apparent’ depiction of the chronology of events.

Image © Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Image © Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters


This led Frum to conclude (and publicly proclaim) that the NYT and Reuters were guilty of misleading readers by staging these photos. I’ve not seen the actual metadata, but I’m pretty sure that Bag’s conclusion would have been more easily reached had the actual ‘capture time’ recorded in the image metadata been available. Events such as this, and a photograph’s vulnerability to criticism, simply underlines for me that the camera’s metadata may sometimes also be a vital ‘witness’ in establishing the chronology and thus the veracity of the unfolding of (some) events.

Jim Fallows, writing in The Atlantic on the Frum controversy makes another salient point in: ‘On David Frum, The New York Times, and the Non-faked ‘Fake’ Photos’:

“2. Reporters have different interests and styles and predilections, different strengths and weaknesses, different stories of having ended up in this craft. But there is one thing they—we—have in common. It is the fundamental drive that makes us stick with this odd line of work, the usually unspoken but immensely powerful source of pride in what we do. It is summed up by three words: I saw this.”

“I saw this” –  the ‘witness’ aspect is vitally important. It underpins everything that constitutes good and honest reporting. You either personally witness, or you interview those who did, and look for corroborating reports. And if you photograph it, you may record location and date/time metadata too, to confirm your presence.

So good so far. But what about stuff the PJ didn’t see? The stuff that maybe wasn’t there?

Tyler Hicks got publicly denigrated this week, and indeed his integrity and photojournalistic skills were called into question, but not for something that was IN his images, but for something that was (to some critics) inexplicably absent from the scenes that he had witnessed and recorded in Gaza. This bizarre situation all started when JTA journalist Uriel Heilman asked the NYT why they were not showing any images of Hamas launching rockets, reasoning that as there were plenty being fired into Israel from Gaza surely there should be images of them: ‘NYT on why it hasn’t shown photos of Hamas fighter: We don’t have any.’

In a provocatively titled piece in Tablet Magazine (credited only to ‘Staff Notes’ for some reason):  New York Times Slams Its Own Pulitzer-Prize Winning Photographer in Gaza: Says Legendary Photojournalist Tyler Hicks is Bad at His Job the author states:

If you have ever wondered why the New York Times photo coverage from Gaza has almost exclusively consisted of dead and bleeding Palestinian children in Shifa Hospital, with nary a Hamas gunman or missile launch from a school or a mosque to fill out the narrative of events on the ground, the newspaper of record has an astonishing answer: Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Tyler Hicks really sucks at his job. 

It’s a bit of deliberately provocative click-bait (but it’s worth reading all the same). And there’s more of it here too.

Stung by these comments, I’ll take a guess that this subsequent NYT Lens blog published only a few days later featuring the work of Tyler Hicks, was in part a response to this open criticism of him and the NYT: ‘Looking for the Enduring Photo in Gaza’


So where in all this is there any emotional objectivity to be found? Must we continually have to fight through the fog of propaganda and seek to wrestle from it our own ‘truths’. Where in all of this can ANY objectivity be found?

How about metadata?

Slightly out of left field comes Google Glass. This piece caught my attention because it’s struck me more than once recently that metadata, as an automated ‘evidence of presence’ gathering tool, is objective. At first glance this article in The Airspace: ‘Google Glass Lets You Take Photos With Your Brain’ might not seem to offer anything of any consequence, but given the rapid pace of (technological) change and our dependence on digital tools for recording all we see, this might just be worth thinking about for a moment.

“If you haven’t heard, electroencephalograms (EEGs) have been getting better. Way better. Artificial limbs and even video game controllers are utilizing the non-invasive brain-wave monitoring method to guide computers by thought. Now English startup This Place has developed a way to bring the technology to Google Glass, allowing Google’s wearable to read your mind.

Well, it’s significantly less dramatic than that. Glass won’t be googling your every thought or even snapping photos without concerted effort…yet.

The new application, called MindRDR, uses an EEG headset attachment to measure brain activity, but right now the only options are for taking and sharing photos. And while the software is open-source, the NeuroSky Mindwave headset it works with will set you back $100 on top of Google Glass’s hefty $1,500 price tag.

Still, the software is compelling and employs a technology usually relegated to video games and medical technology. Whereas typically Glass relies on verbal commands, MindRDR reads brainwaves.”

Where will this lead? Well, how about embedding EEG signals in the image metadata? Allowing the image user to determine what your mental state was at the time of capture and deciding whether to use your image or not. Shouldn’t be too hard I’d imagine. Far-fetched? Well, I did a search and…….Slate carried a recent article that mentioned this very thing: ‘It’s Like They’re Reading My Mind’:

While EEGs cannot read your mind in the traditional, Professor X-y sense, it turns out that your brainwaves can reveal a great deal about you, such as your attention level and emotional state, and possibly much more. For instance, the presence of beta waves correlates with excitement, focus, and stress. One brain signal, known as the P300 response, correlates with recognition, say of a familiar face or object.

Maybe in future picture editors can file images by apparent ‘bias’ and image users can select from them according to the degree of ’emotional bias’ they are comfortable with, as evidenced by the photographer’s neural activity.

But one of the most striking ‘images’ from the recent conflict that I’ve seen relies on metadata for its accuracy, indeed this image ‘is’ metadata. In a remarkable piece of digital analysis by Gilad Lotan, published in Medium: Israel, Gaza, War & Data (social networks and the art of personalizing propaganda) Lotan presents an ‘image’ of sorts that I’d like to think is truly objective. If you read no other links out of this post, at least read this one. Remember that quote from Jon Snow “…..for engagement from his audience, promising “Together we can make a difference”…………..”  well the image below actually represents that ‘together’ he talks of.

The following tag cloud represents co-occurence of hashtags on Instagram posts. The larger a tag, the more times it appeared. The tighter-connected two tags are, the more times they appeared together. (Click it for a larger view or visit the linked article so you can more easily read the small print). Presumably individuals using the hashtags could be easily identified and in some cases their locations established.

Image © Gilad Lotan

Image © Gilad Lotan

Where does all this leave us? Well my ‘big stick’ example still holds I think, but today its digital, and specifically ‘metadata’. In a mess of confused and confusing sentiment, some of it fact, some fiction, much of it used as propaganda of one sort or another, metadata has the potential to provide a very basic yardstick to underline the “I was there” “It was this time” “I saw this”, and perhaps also as represented in the Lotan ‘image’ above “This is where my sympathy lies”.

And therein may lie a huge problem.

If we bear in mind that many cameras and ‘iPhone’ devices now embed GPS coordinates in their metadata, this is an absolute gift to anyone in the IDF monitoring social media in real time and relaying those coordinates to gunnery teams. I wondered if this was possible, if anyone had tried looking for correlations between images posted to social media and artillery strikes within Gaza? You may think that is a far-fetched notion? Then you’d best read this: ‘How to freak out Instagram and Twitter users – and why they need to be more private’ and be sure to watch the video. But that’s the light-hearted link – the Slate article I previously referenced is the really scary one, and which surprised me:

“For example, as Future Tense blogger Ryan Gallagher reported for the Guardian, Raytheon, the world’s fifth-largest defense contractor, has developed software called RIOT (Rapid Information Overlay Technology) that can synthesize a vast amount of data culled from social networks. By pulling, for instance, the invisible location metadata embedded in the pictures our cellphones take, RIOT tracks where we’ve been and accurately guesses where we will be—and provides all of this information to whomever is running the software.”

That’s the damage metadata can potentially enable. Our ability to bear witness to current events with the digital tools at our disposal, instantly distributing ‘news’ (and our metadata incontrovertibly underlining the ‘I was there’) places journalists not only at the heart of the story, but it may also make them a target.

I’ll finish with one last image, again by the photographer whose image at top was called into question by Frum: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa. This is an image of a devastated house, reduced to rubble by Israeli bombardment. It is a family home.

Rescue workers search for victims as Palestinians gather around the wreckage of a house, which witnesses said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike that killed at least nine members from the al-Ghol family, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip August 3, 2014.  Image © Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Rescue workers search for victims as Palestinians gather around the wreckage of a house, which witnesses said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike that killed at least nine members from the al-Ghol family, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip August 3, 2014. Image © Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

It accompanies an article about the incident, ‘Never Ask me About Peace Again’ written by Asmaa al-Ghoul, a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Palestine Pulse and a journalist from the Rafah refugee camp based in Gaza. It is in fact HER family’s home, which she had recently visited. And it brings us full circle, back to that Beckett quote at top:

“Certainly, human interest can be a great way to connect viewers or readers to remote victims of injustice or violence. However, when the journalist’s own emotions become part of the narrative then there’s a danger of losing trust.”

It is a powerful piece of writing, and I doubt I could have been so ‘restrained’. It should remind us all that no matter what embedded digital information an image may carry, and whatever that may purport to say about us, about where we were, or currently are, or (in future) what our stress levels were, the real power of a photograph lies, quite simply at a basic human level, in what it shows us:

“Now I understood why the photographs of corpses were so important, not only for international public opinion, but for us, the families, in search for an opportunity to bid farewell to our loved ones, so treacherously killed. What were they doing in those last moments? What did they look like after their death?

I discovered the photos of my dead relatives on social networking sites. The bodies of my cousin’s children were stored in an ice cream freezer. Rafah’s Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital was closed after being shelled by Israeli tanks, and the Kuwaiti Hospital that we visited just a day earlier had become an alternate venue, where this freezer was the only option available.

Endings are so strange, as are living moments that suddenly become relegated to the past. We will never see them again, and the pictures that I took of the twins are now so precious, as one of them, Mustafa, was killed, while the other, Ibrahim, remained alive.

In the photos taken after their death, my family looked so peaceful, asleep with their eyes closed.


Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (2 Comments)

    • Thanks for the link David. Brainwaves? I’m not saying I’m buying into all of it, but Google Glass WILL change things significantly. This ‘might’ be one way it does that. Glad you found something in it to chew on.
      Cheers John

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