There’s an old maxim that cautions: If the headline asks a question, the answer is “No!”
That’s fair – usually the job of a headline is to state the facts. Just the facts. Quickly and succinctly. If the headline can’t do that and tosses out a question instead, be wary. It means that the facts aren’t in. And if the facts aren’t there to back up a story, it’s not news. It’s just speculation about what might be news tomorrow.
But let’s let the headline’s question stand. Is the Time magazine cover pictured here “Fake News”? Convictions will run strong on this one, but I wouldn’t rush to judgement. It gets complicated.
Back in July, Time magazine built a cover around a photo illustration juxtaposing a desperate little girl with a looming tower of Trump, looking down to meet her teary eyes. The associated story was about the newly instituted policy of family separation at the southern border. The picture of the girl had already been published – gone viral, if you will – and would have been familiar to many readers, summing up the plight of many, movingly.
The photo’s use here, staring up forlorn at Papa Trump, was immediately labeled “Fake News!” by the President’s defenders. Why fake? The quick answer was that Trump wasn’t there at the border. Yes, Melania went down, but not him. Trump never met this girl. Therefore the image was a ‘shop, a fabrication, another mainstream media attempt to mislead.
This of course is uninformed nonsense. An illustration utilizing photography is not the same thing as a doctored photograph. You may disagree with the editorial bent of the cover, or even believe that it’s inappropriate for a major news outlet to be so outspoken. But Fake News? Hardly. Case closed.
However, in an attempt to mount a well-informed defense, I dug in a little more. Turns out, the girl in the photo wasn’t part of the separation-from-parents sweep. She was in fact with her family the entire time, sad and stressed to be sure, but not one of the children affected by the new policy.
Huh. I wouldn’t have guessed that. That goes against the narrative. That undercuts my assumptions without offering an explanation. I don’t like it. It breaks up my mental dichotomy, my easy answers. Leaves me feeling complicit in the left/right blue/red bomb-throwing provincialism that’s taken over the fight.
So then, back to the question: “Is this Fake News?”
I’m going to stick with my original maxim and say: No. It’s not Fake News. It’s an editorial illustration, and a very effective one at that, summing up the heartbreak, the conflict, and indeed the executive office’s too-aloof stance on the trouble that they’d caused. However, I won’t let Time off the hook that easily. It may not be Fake News, but it certainly isn’t Real News either.
The image was stark, the cover was strong, and I can’t blame Time for running with it. But they cut a corner with this one, as a little googling will quickly point out. As designers, as illustrators, photographers, bloggers, etc., we have a responsibility to get things right, to be above reasonable reproach. Be self-aware: know your audience, know your intentions. Know how your work fits within the bigger debate, and not just how it rings out in your echo-chamber, or your personal meme-a-verse. Accuracy counts. People are listening.
As has been said: Much power, much responsibility.