TIME ‘Crying Girl’ Cover’s Truthiness

The crying Honduran girl who has become a symbol of a brutal policy actually is not one of its victims.

A lot of Republicans in my social media feeds, particularly on Facebook, are chortling over a rather epic blooper on the above TIME cover.

WaPo (“Time magazine’s major mistake on the crying-girl cover“):

There are examples of children separated from parents who immigrated illegally playing out nationwide. And well-meaning people across the political spectrum have taken a stand and forced change.

Unfortunately, they made their most iconic image something that wasn’t a family being separated — and ultimately undermines their cause.

The photo of a nearly 2-year-old Honduran girl crying as her mother is being patted down quickly went viral. It has also been used for a Facebook fundraiser to raise more than $18 million to help reunite families who have been separated. And the whole thing culminated in its placement in a photo illustration on the cover of Time magazine. The image features the girl against a red background, with President Trump towering over her and the words “Welcome to America.”

The implication was clear: This was a girl who, like 2,500 other children, was being separated from her mother. Time and many others made a decision to suggest that this was an example of Trump uprooting our American ideals.

But that’s not what it was. As The Washington Post’s Samantha Schmidt and Kristine Phillips report, the girl’s father says the child and her mother were never separated. U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed it, as did the Honduran deputy foreign minister.

That’s rather embarrassing. It’s one thing for thousands of people to retweet a photo without checking to be sure that it’s legit. [Or, as it turns down, a blogger doing this in his spare time; we used the photo here at OTB to illustrate a post on the topic.] But you’d expect better of a major news magazine. But, shockingly, TIME’s initial stance was to double down:

Time is standing by its cover. Editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal says in a statement: “The June 12 photograph of the 2-year-old Honduran girl became the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate in America for a reason: Under the policy enforced by the administration, prior to its reversal this week, those who crossed the border illegally were criminally prosecuted, which in turn resulted in the separation of children and parents. Our cover and our reporting capture the stakes of this moment.”

No, goddammit, it doesn’t. It captures something else entirely.

The image is a sad one, but it is of a rather standard occurrence at the border: A mother and her daughter attempted to immigrate illegally and were apprehended. The mother, in fact, had tried this before and was deported in 2013. The photo says virtually nothing about Trump’s now-aborted policy. In fact, it’s an example of how not all young children were separated from their parents.

As Aaron Blake, who wrote the above-linked WaPo report, observes,

Opponents of Trump’s policy will decry all of this fact-checking of the photo as hand-wringing. They’ll point to Trump’s and Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s tweets and say all of this is a meaningless distraction from an awful policy. The tragic scenes still exist — probably some of which look a lot like one in that viral photo — and we still have very little idea how or when these thousands of children are going to be reunited with their parents after Trump’s executive order reversing the policy.

[…]

But forcing action on this policy requires care and credibility. It requires convincing skeptics that you’re not overselling the problem by using misleading information and images.

The use of this photo damaged that entire effort — no matter how pristine the motives were.

Quite right. Granting that Trump ultimately reversed the policy, people on my Facebook feed now think the entire story is “fake news” because of this one blooper.

Eventually, TIME issued a rather tepid correction:

“The original version of this story misstated what happened to the girl in the photo after she [was] taken from the scene,” said the correction, which was added to the article shortly after it was published online on Tuesday. “The girl was not carried away screaming by U.S. Border Patrol agents; her mother picked her up and the two were taken away together.”

The photographer, John Moore of Getty Images, had noticed the mistake and contacted Time to make the correction, the magazine said.

But millions of people saw the cover; dozens will see the correction.

In the October 2005 pilot episode of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert coined the term truthiness to describe “the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.” While originally satirizing the way conservative news outlets present information, a 2012 study of the phenomenon found that it was real:

In four different experiments they discovered that people believe claims are true, regardless of whether they actually are true, when a decorative photograph appears alongside the claim. The work is published online in the Springer journal, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

“We wanted to examine how the kinds of photos people see every day—the ones that decorate newspaper or TV headlines, for example—might produce “truthiness,” said lead investigator Eryn J. Newman of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. “We were really surprised by what we found.”

In a series of four experiments in both New Zealand and Canada, Newman and colleagues showed people a series of claims such as, “The liquid metal inside a thermometer is magnesium” and asked them to agree or disagree that each claim was true. In some cases, the claim appeared with a decorative photograph that didn’t reveal if the claim was actually true—such as a thermometer. Other claims appeared alone. When a decorative photograph appeared with the claim, people were more likely to agree that the claim was true, regardless of whether it was actually true.

Across all the experiments, the findings fit with the idea that photos might help people conjure up images and ideas about the claim more easily than if the claim appeared by itself. “We know that when it’s easy for people to bring information to mind, it ‘feels’ right,” said Newman.

The research has important implications for situations in which people encounter decorative photos, such as in the media or in education. “Decorative photos grab people’s attention,” Newman said. “Our research suggests that these photos might have unintended consequences, leading people to accept information because of their feelings rather than the facts.”

Of course, truthiness works both ways. In Colbert’s original premise, it was about people believing things because they feel them to be true, facts be damned. The idea that some massive number of dangerous criminals are flooding our streets by posing as refugees is an example of that. Here, though, we have the opposite phenomenon: We have a fact that’s been proven untrue used as an example of a situation that was. That this particular girl was not actually a refugee child separated from her mother by scary US government agents doesn’t negate the fact that some 2500 others were.

Alas, however, TIME’s printing of news too good to check will make many believe that the whole thing was a cocked-up story by the liberal media.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Borders and Immigration, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. TM01 says:

    Am I reading this right?

    Time’s lie is essentially ok because it’s directionally right.
    But Trump’s lie is horrible even tho it’s directionally right.

    Ironically Time is I think the only one to correctly report that Trump’s animals comment was directed at MS13.

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  2. wr says:

    Yes, as Americans we can all sleep peacefully knowing that this tiny girl was not separated from her mother, but is instead happily locked in a jail cell with her mother. USA! City on a hill!!!

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @TM01:

    Am I reading this right?

    Time’s lie is essentially ok because it’s directionally right.

    It’s not a lie but a careless mistake. But the whole point of the post is that it’s not okay.

    @wr:

    Yes, as Americans we can all sleep peacefully knowing that this tiny girl was not separated from her mother, but is instead happily locked in a jail cell with her mother.

    Her mother is a serial violator of our laws; we’re not going to not arrest her because she brought her kid.

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  4. teve tory says:

    Most liberals on my FB feed considered the photo exploitative. Newsweek botched this multiple ways.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @TM01:

    Ironically Time is I think the only one to correctly report that Trump’s animals comment was directed at MS13.

    If that’s the lie that allows you to sleep at night you are even simpler in the head than every trumpkin I have met. Every single one of them that I have had conversations with about our immigration problem hesitated not one second in demonizing all the illegal immigrants, blaming them for every societal ill this country suffers from. It is almost as tho “real Americans” aren’t to blame for anything. Least of all the hiring of illegal immigrants for work.

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  6. My understanding is that the reality behind the fate of this little girl was not made clear until after the photo had been published and after the Time cover had been released.

    If that’s the case, then I don’t think Time’s error is quite as egregious as conservatives are making it out to be. Yes, perhaps there should have been some follow up after the fact regarding the fate of this little girl, but the photo itself had become symbolic of the Trump Administration’s entire heartless, cruel, inhumane, and unnecessary family separation policy. In that sense it’s not unlike the iconic photo of the flag raising after the Battle of Iwo Jima which was, we later learned, somewhat staged after the fact.

    That being said, Time could have done a better job with its correction.

    Nonetheless, conservatives who are trying to use this as an example to support their “media bias” myth are once again reduced to being the boy who cried wolf when, at the best, all they have is a harmless puppy.

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I agree that the use of the photo is a mistake, not deliberate propaganda. But, surely, a major news outlet such as TIME has an obligation to verify the photo before photoshopping it onto their cover with an image of the President. As Bump notes, it plays into the President’s “fake news” narrative.

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  8. MBunge says:

    I agree that the use of the photo is a mistake, not deliberate propaganda.

    It is legitimately great to see something like this on OTB. Seriously, how many times have we seen a post like this in the last two years? But the issue with the photo as propaganda has to do with the overall context, not the decision-making of this particular incident.

    And I’m not just talking about being able to post links to multiple lies, distortions, mischaracterizations, and exaggerations the media has vomited out on this issue of illegal immigrant family separation. I’m talking about how many times we’ve seen these kinds of “mistakes” throughout the entire Trump Presidency on just about every issue and the bizarre, puzzling, and confounding coincidence that seemingly every single one of them is anti-Trump. How is it possible that a multitude acting independently make the same kind of “mistake” over and over and over again?

    Mike

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  9. george says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    If that’s the case, then I don’t think Time’s error is quite as egregious as conservatives are making it out to be. Yes, perhaps there should have been some follow up after the fact regarding the fate of this little girl, but the photo itself had become symbolic of the Trump Administration’s entire heartless, cruel, inhumane, and unnecessary family separation policy.

    You don’t see the problem of a symbol that is a false premise? Trump’s Administration separation of families was, as you say, heartless, cruel, inhumane and unnecessary. So why not use a symbol which is actually is a case of that? And that they didn’t know is hardly a defense; how hard would it have been to check beforehand? Its a cover photo for crying out loud, aren’t you supposed to spend as much time checking up on them as you do photoshopping them?

    Now if they’d used that picture to comment on Trump’s admin jailing families together for seeking refuge (also horrible) it’d have been fine. Instead they used it to symbolize separation, and instead its become a symbol of ‘fake news’. Because in fact it was fake news. They blew it. Its a great picture, and used truthfully pointed at a very definite evil (the jailing). Instead they used it as a lie for a different evil. That is, in sporting terms, an unforced error.

    Symbols are important. This one could have been powerful across the board. Now its only preaching to the already converted – and in both directions.

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  10. Hal_10000 says:

    @MBunge:

    Here’s the difference:

    The media made a mistake with this photo. They eventually admitted their error and corrected it.

    Trump, during his speech on immigration, through a number of gigantic falsehoods — immigrants murder 12 people a day, green card holders are “the worst”, etc.. He will NEVER admit that he was wrong, never issue a correction and just move on to the next lie.

    Do you see the difference now? Yes, I will agree that the media are biased against Trump and this sometimes causes a confirmation bias like we saw here, where they ran with a picture because they wanted it to be true. But there is a corrective mechanism. Almost all the corrections of “fake news” have come from the media itself. Who is correcting Trump and his propaganda machine?

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  11. Andy says:

    I’ve never really understood the need to make stuff and stretch the truth when the truth itself is sufficient.

    In this case, it wasn’t just Time – there were fake and misleading pictures shared with millions on social media. I don’t know if the people doing this are dumb or dishonest, but surely they must see how counterproductive it is.

  12. @george:

    And you place no significance on the fact that we didn’t know at the time that the girl and her mother were still together and that this was not brought to the attention of the media in general or Time particularly until after the cover had been published when it was too late?

  13. @James Joyner:

    I get your point, and Bump’s, but I think we need to keep the post hoc nature of the revelation of the truth in mind in cases like this. It would be a far more egregious case if it were known that the premise of the photo was known at the time, but it wasn’t and I’m not sure how the fate of the girl could have been verified in any respect had her father not come forward.

    It was a mistake, but not a deliberate one and perhaps one that could have been prevented, and I’m not going to cede this one to the far-right and its continued paranoia over “media bias.”

  14. James Pearce says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    the fact that we didn’t know at the time that the girl and her mother were still together

    But isn’t that the problem, that we didn’t know? (Ricky Roma has some helpful advice on what you should do if you don’t know what the shot is.)

    @Andy:

    I’ve never really understood the need to make stuff and stretch the truth when the truth itself is sufficient.

    So often the truth isn’t sufficient, though.

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  15. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    It was a mistake, but not a deliberate one and perhaps one that could have been prevented, and I’m not going to cede this one to the far-right and its continued paranoia over “media bias.”

    Oh, absolutely. My point is that, by being careless—TIME simply should have known what the facts of the photo were before running with it in a PhotoShopped, anti-Trump cover—TIME fed into Trump’s bullshit “fake news” narrative.

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  16. wr says:

    @James Joyner: “Her mother is a serial violator of our laws; we’re not going to not arrest her because she brought her kid.”

    As is Jared Kushner, and last time I looked his kids were still commuting between Park Avenue and Washington DC.

    By the way, I am also a serious violator of our laws, having received multiple parking tickets before I lived carless in NY. I don’t have kids, but I guess this gives Jeff Sessions to lock my wife up, just in case.

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  17. Gustopher says:

    @Hal_10000:

    The media made a mistake with this photo. They eventually admitted their error and corrected it.

    Also, the inferences that one might draw from the photo — that the Trump administration has a cruel policy of tearing apart families — is correct, even if this particular instance is wrong.

    It was the wrong photo to use. But that’s all.

    Maybe they could have embedded a sound chip like those tacky greeting cards that play music, and had their magazine give the crying of children separated from their parents.

  18. wr says:

    @James Joyner: “TIME simply should have known what the facts of the photo were before running with it in a PhotoShopped, anti-Trump cover—TIME fed into Trump’s bullshit “fake news” narrative.”

    Was the little girl crying? Unless she’s one fine crisis actor. Was she crying because of Trump’s border police arresting her mother? Why, yes, no one says otherwise. Did the cover of Time say anything else? Why no, no. No it didn’t. What is said was “Welcome to America.”

    There is nothing dishonest about this cover, and the fact that you’ve got Bungles applauding you for saying there is should give you pause…

    And to all the pearl clutchers out there on the left who are concerned that this incredibly powerful, emotional image might not have a factual background that is 100% in accord with the emotions it provokes, why don’t you look up Rosa Parks and then come talk to me. Unless you choose to believe that she was simply a nice black lady who decided to sit up front one day…

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  19. Han says:

    “Upon further investigation, the emaciated Jew featured on our cover Hitler’s Germany was not in fact loaded onto a cattle car and sent to a death camp. They were instead loaded onto a cattle car and sent to a work camp. Time regrets the error.”

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  20. george says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    No, because I would expect finding that out would be part of the process of deciding whether to publish it in the context of separation. Its just normal professional behavior – you test bolts before you put them in a bridge rather than putting them in and then being surprised to find they fail.

    When did fact checking cease to become part of reporting news? I kind of suspect they didn’t check, because it was just too good a picture to risk losing because it didn’t fit their story.

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  21. dazedandconfused says:

    “A lie can go around the world twice before the truth can put on it’s socks.” -said somebody.

    Media has always been under time (npi) pressure, but the advent of the internet has done to copy editors and fact checkers what a meteor did to the dinosaurs. TIME screwed up, don’t get me wrong, just saying publications might be well advised choose whether they wish to be fish or fowl, as to be a bastard combination of the two is to be something laughable.

  22. gVOR08 says:

    I’ve long believed that one prerequisite to being a conservative is a lack of any sense of proportion.

    Our President* claimed that 63,000 people have been killed by illegal immigrants. Anyone reasonably well informed and numerate will immediately recognize this as an impossible number. And a very harmful statement. And we’re concerned that Time has perhaps been less than punctilious with a photo?

  23. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08:

    Our President* claimed that 63,000 people have been killed by illegal immigrants. Anyone reasonably well informed and numerate will immediately recognize this as an impossible number. And a very harmful statement. And we’re concerned that Time has perhaps been less than punctilious with a photo?

    We can be concerned with multiple things while recognizing that they’re not all equally egregious. But my point (and Phillip Bump’s) is that, in being “less than punctilious” with its cover, TIME has aided Trump in his efforts to create a fact-free environment.

  24. @george:

    And how do you know that Time didn’t make an effort to fact-check the photo beforehand? Until the cover was released, nobody even knew who the little girl was never mind what happened to her. How, exactly, do you “check facts” in a situation like that?

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @MBunge: There’s been a LOT of postings here which have corrected errors, followed up, or dissected situations calmly and logically.

    Maybe you’re just not reading them?

    Idiot.

  26. Kit says:

    TIME’s printing of news too good to check will make many believe that the whole thing was a cocked-up story by the liberal media

    Please. Do you really think even a single person had weighted up all the evidence, found himself sitting on the fence, then fell, stunned, on one side or another after having learned the truth of this photo? I guess gaslighting is the term we want here. This administration has pretty much lied multiple times every day starting from the inauguration. But when Time bungles a photo, then the only conclusion is that both sides lie. And if both sides do it, then that just proves that the main stream media is not to be trusted.

    I’m reminded of the brouhaha with the NFL: what started as a silent gesture to draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement was quickly coopted into an endless digression on the nature of patriotism. Now, instead of talking about the cruelty of this administration with regards to immigration, we can instead argue about just how much wailing and weeping the Left should collectively engage in over a botched magazine cover. The Left is simply being outplayed at every turn in this game.

  27. george says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    So they ran with a picture of someone they knew nothing about, including why she was crying? I would assume fact checking would mean putting such a picture aside and going with one that could be verified.

    Part of the horror of Trump’s policy was just how many children were separated. That gives a tragically large number of verifiable cases; why go with an unknown?