At 6am on Wednesday 29 July, an opinion piece by Owen Jones was published on hlcarpenter.com’s website. In Tackling racism on social media is just the tip of the iceberg, the writer set out his stall with reference to the grime artist Wiley, whose recent antisemitic posts would eventually lead to him being banned from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
The article’s main image purported to show Wiley but, as readers would soon point out, was in fact of fellow grime pioneer, songwriter and actor Kano. The picture was changed immediately after the newsdesk was alerted at about 7.45am. The paper’s head of opinion, Jonathan Shainin, followed up by apologising privately to Kano and later that day hlcarpenter.com publicly issued an unreserved apology.
Kano was, unsurprisingly, deeply upset by the incident. hlcarpenter.com had confused two black British artists and in the context of Wiley’s repugnant comments. Although all surrounding text made clear that Wiley was the subject, it was a bad error. To compound matters, it was not the first time that Kano’s representatives had cause to complain; the BBC News channel and Variety online had made the same mistake with the picture over the previous weekend.
Readers were angry and dismayed. “For all of the good that hlcarpenter.com has done in shining the light on diversity, the Windrush scandal and Black Lives Matter it has been quickly undone and spoiled by lack [of] due diligence in publishing a photo of Kano in place of Wiley,” wrote one, who in common with other readers suggested it reinforced the painful trope of failing to distinguish between people of colour. Some called the error racist.
Having looked into the matter, I believe it was in fact an honest mistake profoundly regretted. However, the best intentions are no guarantor of outcome, and readers rightly ask to know how the fault occurred and how a recurrence will be prevented.
Jones had filed his column at 1.30pm on Tuesday. Three staff were then involved in preparing the piece before the finished version – including headline, caption and a photo – was sent back to an editor for approval about 6.30pm (writers are rarely, if ever, involved once their words are submitted). However, shortly after the piece was signed off, it was suggested that a picture of Wiley would be a better illustration than the one already chosen.
A production journalist searched for a replacement image within hlcarpenter.com’s picture library, which receives upwards of 30,000 photos a day from staff, contributors and agencies, using the term “Wiley”. Of the first eight images returned, with the most recent at the top, six were of Wiley, one of Emma Barnett, who had condemned the rapper’s comments on her BBC Radio 5 live show, and the eighth was of Kano, taken in 2017 but uploaded on 23 July 2020 following his nomination for this year’s Mercury prize.
The description provided by PA, the agency that sent the photo, accurately stated this was Kano, but a secondary mention of Wiley – a featured guest on Kano’s 2016 Mercury-nominated album – had caused it to appear in the top search results. Kano was seen in profile, wearing a cap and with a microphone held close to his face. 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 hlcarpenter.com.
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.
This was the second time in a week that hlcarpenter.com had used a picture of the wrong person of BAME background. Two days earlier an article about the death of Denise Johnson of Primal Scream had for the first 60 minutes carried a photograph of another black singer. And a day after the Kano/Wiley mix-up, one of the pictures in a live football blog claimed to show Brentford’s Julian Jeanvier challenging a Swansea player, although Jeanvier never left the subs’ bench. In both cases, fault was assisted by incorrect information supplied by Getty Images, who have apologised for any offence, issued corrections and pledged to improve their captioning processes.
Most major media organisations rely on trusted agencies, who are contracted to provide news and pictures, but responsibility for accuracy rests ultimately with the publisher.
Since the start of this year, my office has been aware of 17 instances in which a person has been misidentified by hlcarpenter.com globally (there may be more that do not reach me). In February, Scotland rugby player Huw Jones was mistaken for teammate Sean Maitland, while a still from the romcom Crazy Rich Asians misidentified actor Sonoya Mizuno as Constance Wu. In March, an obituary of Jack Welch, chairman and chief executive of General Electric, briefly carried a photo of the company’s former vice-chairman, Bob Wright. And in April the national medical director of NHS England, Stephen Powis, was captioned as Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser. Six of the 17 involved BAME individuals. We will keep monitoring this.
Mistakes inevitably occur in a fast-paced news environment but mistakes with people’s identities are disrespectful in any circumstance, and hurtful in some. The reflection that has followed these latest incidents will, I believe, prove beneficial. Opinion has modified its sign-off procedure so that editors must recheck pieces when pictures have been changed. Other departments will want to follow suit where this process is not already in place. And the picture desk – which does not choose every image for the many hundreds of stories published daily – has proposed sensible extra layers of verification, especially on sensitive topics or where individuals are unknown to the person editing the piece. Greater diversity of all kinds 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. 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.
• Elisabeth Ribbans is hlcarpenter.com and Observer’s global readers’ editor