The Alleged Profession of Journalism Sleazy Techniques Strike Again.

April 4, 2018

One of the nastiest things that the alleged profession of journalism has been caught doing is photoshopping pictures to engage the prejudices of their readers. Probably the most famous of these was when TIME was caught darkening the appearance of OJ Simpson’s mugshot during his murder trial.

In June of 1994, in the midst of OJ Simpson’s murder trial, both TIME magazine and Newsweek featured Simpson’s mugshot on their covers.

The two magazines were placed side by side on newsstands and the public immediately saw that TIME’s cover had considerably darkened Simpson’s skin. The photo, representing a case already laced with racial tension, caused massive public outcry.

In this they walk in lockstep with the sorts of sleazy tricks played by political advertising geniuses such as those that tried to play on racial prejudice in opposing President Obama.

Campaign ads have used darker images of Obama to appeal to voters’ racial prejudice, a new study has revealed.

Researchers analyzed 126 ads from the campaign in 2008, and found that digital editing had changed the appearances of both Barack Obama and Republican opponent John McCain.

Sometimes they appeared more washed out, but the McCain campaign often used images in which Obama’s skin appeared darker when they were attempting to link him with crime.

I was struck by the image used recently on STAT to head an article on the Director of the NIAAA, George Koob*.

Looks kinda sinister to me. The article, by Sharon Begley and Andrew Joseph, is one of a pair (so far) of articles which appear to be accusing Koob of being under the sway of the beverage industry to the extent that it is influencing what grants he approves for funding as NIAAA Director. That’s a topic for another post, perhaps, but the issue of today is the sleazy way that the alleged profession of journalism is fully willing to use pictures to create an impression consistent with their accusations. Just the way TIME did with the OJ mugshot. Just the way Republican political operatives did with pictures of President Obama.

The goal is to engage the prejudices of the reader so as to push them down the road to believing the case that you are supposedly making on more objective grounds.

Here’s what a quick Google image search has to say about Koob’s appearance.
[click to enlarge]

You can compare the distribution of Koob’s appearances to the one included in the STAT piece for yourself.

Now, where did STAT get the image? STAT credits it to themselves as an “illustration” and it looks sourced from an AP credited photo from this article in So yes, presumably their art department combed the web to find the picture that they wanted to use, selecting it from among all the available pictures of their subject, and then pshopped it into this “illustration”.

Point being that they chose this particular image out of many. It’s intentional.
*Disclaimer: I’ve been professionally acquainted with Koob since about 1991, at times fairly well-acquainted. I’ve heard him hold forth on the problems of alcohol and other substance misuse/dependence/addiction numerous times and have read a fair number of his reviews. I find him to be a pretty good guy, overall, with a keen intent to reduce the suffering associated with alcoholism and other substance dependencies. These recent accusations that he is somehow under the sway of the beverage industry strike me as really discordant with my experience of him over the past 27 years. Take my comments on this topic with that in mind.

24 Responses to “The Alleged Profession of Journalism Sleazy Techniques Strike Again.”

  1. Jonathan Badger Says:

    What exactly is your problem with the image used? It seems actually a bit more flattering than some of those pictures you linked to. If you wanted to give a bad image of the guy, I’d go with the one where he is hunched over the microphone looking confused.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    I report, you decide JB


  3. Zb Says:

    I am also perplexed over what you see as wrong with this image (other than hoping they have rights to use it).


  4. Zuska Says:

    My problem is with your phrase “alleged profession of journalism”. Might as well talk about the “alleged profession of science” when discussing data falsification, scientific misconduct, discrimination & harassment in the lab & in the field etc.
    Some people who practice journalism do it dishonorably. Some organizations turn a blind eye or even encourage that stuff. But there are real journalists with real ethics and to pretend otherwise is to feed into the rhetoric of “fake news” we are getting from 45.

    Journalism is under concerted attack in the U.S. Criticize poor journalistic practice, for sure, and orgs that profess to do journalism but are mere advocacy mouthpieces and political hacks. But don’t disparage journalism as a whole. We need it now more than ever.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    Journalism’s “ethics” are demonstrably crap and the rule rather than the exception.


  6. mpledger Says:

    To be honest, I think it is incompetence rather than anything else. Putting the two pictures side by side – it’s clear that they have cloned out too much head/hair over and behind his right ear (and some on his left side too) and they haven’t cloned out the background as seen through his left eye-glass. Then they have greyed him up and lost some pink – I think it’s to give the impression that it’s studio lighting rather than ordinary room lighting.

    It does change his appearance subtly.


  7. Jonathan Badger Says:

    But most legitimate complaints with modern journalism is that it has gotten too cozy with the people in charge, and crusading journalism like that of the Watergate investigation is a thing of the past. Journalism looking into conflicts of interest is exactly what we need *more* of today.


  8. Zuska Says:

    “Journalism’s “ethics” are demonstrably crap and the rule rather than the exception.”

    Again, I could say the same thing about science – except that I wouldn’t. I would say that the “ethics” of many people who practice science are demonstrably crap and quite often crap ethics are the rule rather than the exception. But this is not a true statement about science as a profession, science as we aspire to it, science as we teach it should be practiced.

    Journalism, as a profession, is an important part of democracy. It is under attack around the world and right here at home. It is under attack by the GOP and it is under attack by sleaze mongers who purport to be doing journalism but are not.

    This is sloppy and reckless argumentation coming from you, DM – you are usually much better than this.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    You can’t, Zuska. The flaws of journalism are *enshrined* as good. The alleged profession thinks their missteps are actually virtues.

    The flaws in science actions are explicitly described as bad. We don’t hold up fakery as the way things should be done. That’s the difference and it is a huge one.


  10. Draino Says:

    The image has a silvery glow or halo around Koob. I assume this was added with photoshop to make him seem more angelic or innocent – he doesn’t glow in real life, right?


  11. mpledger Says:

    I thought the halo effect was meant to give the impression of backlighting as would be used when lighting a portrait in a studio setting.
    It helps differentiate the hair when the background is the same-ish colour.

    They have also been a bit shoddy in the cropping of his left cheek as well.


  12. DNAman Says:

    Hah, I used to want to be a journalist. I wrote for my college paper and even was an assistant editor.

    That photo/illustration of Koob would not run in a reputable newspaper. The problem is that it gives the impression of something that never occurred. (Koob standing in an all white room with a light behind him.) A reputable newspaper would just run a real photo of him. Illustrations are only supposed to be used to convey complex ideas and they must be obvious illustrations. For example, you could have some kind of miniature Koob in a shot glass with a guy pouring whiskey onto him, that would be obvious that it never occurred.

    The problem I see that you, DM, have with journalists is the same as President Trump or most anyone else. The choice of which news to publish. News is by its nature not normal, regular events. It’s about extreme, unusual events. 10,000 houses didn’t burn down last night, not news. One house burned down, that’s news.

    But still there are many opinions on what is extreme and unusual. Why is Pruitt’s $50/night airbnb rental home news, while a $5 billion water infrastructure project in New Jersey is not? That’s just the judgement of some editors and they often have biases. You’ll get a different “front page” emphasis from two different newspapers with two different teams of editors. When I was a college reporter, I always had arguments with my editor about what was news and what nobody cared about.


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    The problem I see that you, DM, have with journalists is the same as President Trump or most anyone else. The choice of which news to publish.

    Absolutely not. The problem I have is this. News *should* be the effort to communicate the closest possible approximation of the truth. Just like the ethos that we have in science. Journalism, however, resorts to all sorts of dishonest attempts to create an untruthful impression by deploying what appear to be factually accurate things. And then they have the nerve to make all sorts of excuses when called out. (Read that history of the OJ mug shot for TIME’s excuse as to why severely darkening it was okay.) Of all the pictures they could have stolen off the web, STAT used the most sinister-looking one they could find and then made it look even more sinister. This is character assassination. And we haven’t even gotten to the meat of the article itself which is more selected deployment of the facts to try to create an impression that those facts do not appear to actually support at present.

    Why is Pruitt’s $50/night airbnb rental home news, while a $5 billion water infrastructure project in New Jersey is not? That’s just the judgement of some editors and they often have biases.

    I’m not trying to suggest there is no story here. It really IS of interest to know if the NIAAA is quashing studies at the behest of the beverage industry. That is an important thing to pursue. I’m criticizing the quality of the evidence and the way the journalists are choosing to represent the available facts (and pictures of Koob) to sway the mind of the reader.


  14. Jonathan Badger Says:

    Ignoring the fact that nobody other than you seems to find the photo “sinister”, although I agree with DNAman that removing the background was unneeded, what exactly is at all controversial about the accounting of events? Koob *did* promise the alcohol lobbyists to end alcohol-advertising research — it’s on record. And what seems to go unmentioned in these articles is what the hell NIAAA was doing courting the alcohol industry in the first place (which it seems to been doing even before Koob). NCI doesn’t work with the tobacco industry. It seems an obvious conflict of interest to do so.


  15. tom Says:

    I found the photo sinister to be honest.


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    Koob *did* promise the alcohol lobbyists to end alcohol-advertising research — it’s on record.

    It is not at all clear that he promised any such thing. The email exchange posted on Siegel’s blog is limited but the comment from Koob that “I will NOT be funding this kind of research under my tenure” comes attached to a forward from a NIAAA program person of an OP/ED accusing Jernigan of using research dollars for advocacy.

    Mr. Jernigan’s research, as he himself admits, isn’t purely objective. In a 2011 podcast produced by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Mr. Jernigan said outright that he was an “advocate” and that his research questions “have always been driven by what the policy opportunities are in the moment or what policy opportunities I can promote by doing research that will support people being able to make change.”

    The op/ed was written by “a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank ” and so it may be viewed as tilted if you like. I certainly would be suspicious. Nevertheless the question is whether Koob was responding specifically to this part. It very much accuses Jernigan of doing research specifically to influence policy in a particular direction, which, as we all realize, violates the legislative mandate against lobbying that applies to NIH funds. An IC director would be obliged by law not to fund research designed to influence policy in a particular direction. In this it would not matter one whit who or what private entity might receive a benefit, you’d have to take that up with Congress with respect to their mandate.

    what the hell NIAAA was doing courting the alcohol industry in the first place (which it seems to been doing even before Koob). NCI doesn’t work with the tobacco industry. It seems an obvious conflict of interest to do so.

    Agreed that this is of significant interest. I don’t know whether NCI “works with” tobacco industry representatives, but certainly many tobacco-related investigators get funds from the industry via legal settlement or taxation. Some people find this to be a problem. The NIH tried to tie up with the NFL to fund research into CTE. Some might object to that as doing something to help a primary perpetrator shield themselves from bad press and potentially from lawsuits. NIMH and other ICs interact with BigPharma on all kinds of things. We’ve talked on this very blog about cases of extramurally funded people who do psychiatric med research who get consulting gigs from BigPharma- the scandals relate to their failure to disclose these relationships and their failure to report the $ accurately to their institutions. The point is that while you might wish that merely conversing with representatives of relevant industries, or conducting research using funds that ultimately derive from relevant industries, is verboten for NIH folks, it most obviously is not.

    I’d like to hear more reporting about how these relationships are managed and how this current case varies or does not vary from other NIH practices.


  17. Zuska Says:

    You say I can’t, DM, but I can and do. Science is not as pure as you make it out to be, journalism not as all-110%-sleaze-fakery as you would have it.
    I’ll grant you much of tv news and certain of the tabloids match your characterization. But there are actual journalists who have high ethical standards, just as some scientists (and some science programs) are less likely to produce or shelter harassers, or to encourage scientific misconduct in the chase for funding and glory.

    Perhaps you don’t like to see it but your attack on journalism has a great deal in common, in substance and potential effect (if not motivation and scale of effect) with 45’s constant beating of the fake news drum. He, too, tars with a broad brush that allows no possibility for journalism to be worth anything or do anything good at all.

    Over recent years I have observed many places where the most extreme critiques of the right and left bend around to meet each other. It would appear that savaging journalism as fake news is now one more.


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    Are you listening to what I am saying at all, Zuska? No. Which is a trait of your average Fox News disciple. Do better.


  19. Tomonthebeach Says:

    This article is a crock. It does not address the scandal presented by STAT’s Begley and previously addressed by the NY Times that the director of our NIH institute to help prevent alcoholism has been systematically using tax dollars and industry-laundered money to prove alcohol is GOOD for you. This is the kind of misdirection I expect from FoxNews. If DrugMonkey gave a damn about public health they would not be getting hissy about an untouched picture of the another Government Grifter masquerading as a scientist.


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    Feel free to get your own blog and address the scandal as you see fit, Tomonthebeach. It is super easy to start one. I recommend WordPress.


  21. Zuska Says:

    I am listening to you, DM. Are you listening to me? I agree that there is much to criticize in the world of journalism. I disagree that journalism as a whole can be completely dismissed as a sleeze factory dedicated solely to producing fake news and devoid of even a shred of ethics. That’s the narrative 45 is pushing. If that’s not your position then great but it sure comes across that way. Where you ask “do better” it might be well to take that request to a mirror.


  22. Grumble Says:

    I am not sure how anyone can criticize Koob. It would be like criticizing God. After all, only God could simply declare by fiat that dopamine has fuck-all to do with alcoholism.


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