Picture mix-ups at Guardian and BBC blamed on Covid-19 remote working

The Guardian and BBC have both linked recent editorial mistakes to journalists working from home during the Covid-19 crisis.

Elisabeth Ribbans, global readers’ editor for the Guardian and Observer, said the switch to remote working has meant the loss of the “opportunity for a quick huddle” in the newsroom, which can often prevent errors.

Ribbans said it was a production journalist working alone at home who made the error that saw the Guardian website use a photo of the rapper Kano (pictured, left) instead of grime artist Wiley (right) on a column by Owen Jones about racism in news media and on social media, and that this could have been prevented in normal circumstances.

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She said that the article, including headline, photo and caption, was signed off by an editor at about 6.30pm the evening before publication but that it was subsequently decided that a photo of Wiley would be a better fit than the image that had already been agreed.

A production journalist was tasked with searching for an image of Wiley in the Guardian’s picture library and found the photo of Kano among the top eight results, having been accurately captioned by PA to reference a collaboration by the pair.

Ribbans told readers: “The misty stage setting looked of a piece with the concert photo of Wiley that sat alongside, creating an illusion of similarity that had already caught out two media organisations and prompted PA, alerted by Kano’s team, to issue a warning email to clients, which, due to technical error, was not sent to the Guardian.

“Careful reading of the agency description, displayed when a photo is selected, would have set a misapprehending journalist straight. Individuals working on opinion and news pieces possess sound knowledge of core current affairs but are not specialist in every topic – social, political, scientific or cultural – that crosses their desk. The abiding instinct to doubt and check is therefore vital.

“So is an extra pair of eyes. In this case the production journalist was now working alone from home, swapping out the photo as a last task before finishing for the day. The story was scheduled to publish next morning. No one saw the page again until readers did.”

Ribbans said the opinion desk has now updated its procedures so editors must now recheck pieces when pictures have been changed, and that other departments should follow suit if they do not do this already.

The picture desk has also produced “sensible extra layers of verification,” she said, also noting that greater diversity in the newsroom among teams handling photos would “broaden subject reference points”.

“Extra checks will add time but are all the more important in a home-working environment, where the opportunity for a quick huddle that might prevent such errors has been lost,” she said.

“Speed may still be unavoidable when breaking news and hard deadlines meet, but otherwise it is worth remembering that there is less shame in slowing down than in stumbling.”

The issue of remote working also came up as Ofcom upheld a complaint against the BBC’s Reporting Scotland evening news programme, which used a photo of a man who was alive in a montage showing people who had died with Covid-19 in care homes.

The images were accompanied by commentary from a reporter saying “each one of these faces is a life lost to Covid-19 in Scotland” and the man, Rhys McCole, complained the programme had treated him unfairly by reporting that he was dead.

The BBC put the error down to “genuine human error made under unusual broadcasting conditions where many members of staff were working remotely, and in which usual working practices had been changed and adapted”.

It said McCole had sent a photo of himself and his former teacher, who had died, for use in a BBC News website story and a graphic designer had cropped it to focus on the wrong man.

The error was spotted by a producer, who asked the graphic designer to recrop the image before the montage’s first airing on 22 April. But the original version had not been deleted and it was subsequently reused by a different producer on 6 May.

Upholding McCole’s complaint of unjust or unfair treatment under the Broadcasting Code, Ofcom said: “We took into account the broadcaster’s response that the photograph had been included as a result of human error, but we considered that the use of Mr McCole’s photograph in a montage of other photographs of people who had died from the coronavirus clearly gave the impression to viewers, which included Mr McCole’s friends and family, that he had died, when he had not.

“For this reason, therefore, we considered that the broadcaster had not taken reasonable care to ensure that material facts were not presented, disregarded or omitted in a way that was unfair to Mr McCole in the programme.”

Newsrooms remain largely empty almost five months after the Covid-19 crisis hit the UK and social distancing became paramount, with many now eyeing up permanent changes to their working practices.

Pictures: Victoria Jones/PA Wire and Matt Crossick/PA Wire

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