In August 2006, photos taken in Beirut by a Lebanese freelance photographer, Adnan Hajj, met their journalistic demise when bloggers detected a more ominous cloud of smoke than had actually formed following an air strike by Israeli forces. Hajj admitted to using Photoshop software to doctor the images, claiming that he was only attempting to remove dust spots from them. However, his primary customer, Reuters, did not bite, and the news agency quickly removed from its archives 920 images filed by Hajj, thus eliminating them from the marketplace. Reuters executives spoke of "zero tolerance" in explaining plans to discontinue purchasing photographs from Hajj, noting that the manipulation of images constituted a major breech of journalism ethics. Few would dispute their decision.

 

Adnan Hajj may have been attempting to heighten awareness about alleged Israeli aggression in the Middle East, or may have been attempting to create photographs that stood to compete with moving images produced in a larger-than-life format on a theatre screen.

 

But when it comes to misrepresenting newsworthy events, it might behoove those who study media ethics, as well as those who work in media industries, to consider more insidious examples of historical alterations. Major motion pictures, for instance, have rewritten history since D.W. Griffith and his Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915. Unlike journalism, however, cinema contains the nebulous concept "artistic license," which allows directors to alter historical facts in the interest of dramatization. Unfortunately, the human mind does not distinguish fact from fiction so easily-possibly the best example being President Ronald Reagan's assertion that he inspected a Nazi concentration camp after its liberation during WWII, only to have to later admit that he had not been present and had seen it on a newsreel or documentary film.

 

Scholars Marsh, Meade and Roediger 1 demonstrated in recent experimental research that people acquire-and apply-knowledge gained through both fictitious and non-fictitious representations, and cinema scholars have long suggested that movies teach audiences about the social world. Thus, while film directors may justify factual distortions through philosophical missives about "artistic freedom," the images they project on the silver screen stand to impact audience members in meaningful ways, in some cases affecting the decisions they make as well as their attitudes about public affairs. As Colin McGinn observed in The Power of Movies: How Screen and MindInteract 2, "Perceptually, we relate both to the film medium and to the reality it presents, since the medium precisely is an invocation of reality-what stood before the camera lens and left its trace" (p. 49).

 

Much has been written about filmmaker Oliver Stone and his penchant for interpreting and portraying historical events in a somewhat "relaxed" manner. As an example, neither Bob Woodward nor Carl Bernstein, both of whom played an important role in the resignation of U. S. President Richard Nixon, found Stone's portrayal of the late politician as a half-soused pill-popper very credible. Additionally, regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the list of those who did not participate in the assassination may have been shorter than the list of those who did, according to Stone! But while this director may not be much of a historian, he has proven himself an excellent story teller, as evidenced in his scripts for Midnight Express (1978), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as Scarface (1983) and Salvador (1986). Stone clearly understands how to write compelling stories, and as a director, the cinematic images he creates are much more powerful-and memorable-than news photos with differing shades of smoke.

 

More recently, Sanello 3 discussed the 2001 film Blow, based on the life of convicted cocaine dealer George Jung. As Sanello suggested, Blow glamorized the life Jung led as a major player in the drug trade, largely ignoring how Jung helped to destroy inner cities with crack cocaine. Thirty years earlier, in The French Connection, Gene Hackman played Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, a character based on New York detective Eddie "Popeye" Egan. While Egan and fellow detectives did seize 112 pounds of heroin in 1962, Vankin and Whalen removed some of the adventure from that bust: "We're sorry to report that the real 'French Connection' case featured no shootouts, no killings and no car chases. The cops made their heroin haul without undue incident."4

 

Each of the films mentioned above made millions of dollars for the studios that distributed them, yet each also distorted historical events to tell dramatic stories. Moving beyond the superficial, knee-jerk justifications of filmmakers and Hollywood moguls (e.g., "It's only a movie"), the reality is that movies inform audiences of everything from general social norms to specific details of presidencies-especially when they use the actual names of real people involved. At least television programs such as Law & Order, which feature stories "ripped from the headlines," alter names and circumstances.

 

One way of observing the capacity of films to affect perceptions is to ask students about various historical events and personalities, as well as how they came to understand the facts surrounding them. If they know anything about The Doors, for instance, their knowledge probably came from the Oliver Stone picture of the same name, and if they have even a passing familiarity with recent U. S. military activities in Africa, they probably learned of them through Blackhawk Down (2001). Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler's List (1993) may have served as their introduction to World War II, with Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) teaching them about the Vietnam War (provided they have seen these "historical" movies).

 

Most of the films just mentioned won major awards, and deservingly so, but they were, finally, movies, "inspired by actual events" or "based on a true story." As David F. Prindle 5 observed, "Most of us assume the ordinary" in his 1993 text Risky Business: The Political Economy of Hollywood, "Most of us assume that ordinary people learn a great deal about life, love, business, and democracy from the entertainment media. If media products are purveying a one-sided ideology, their potential impact on our society and its politics is immense. If entertainment is conveying a species of disguised propaganda to a trusting public, then it is considerably more than a harmless diversion; it may even be dangerous" (p. 100). Not all films contain propaganda, of course, but motion pictures nevertheless stand to affect audience perceptions in profound ways.

 

A central question is this: How close are we to the point at which all media products-newspaper and magazine articles, newscasts, books, blogs, television programs and movies-need to be evaluated with one "credibility index"? How manydisbelieve in the reality of space exploration because of NASA animation, or feature films such as Capricorn One? That is, are we near the point at which "truth" should be dismissed as antiquity, with a term such as "perceived plausibility" taking its place?

 

In news, editorial content has long been influenced by factors such as advertising revenues and symbiotic relationships between journalists and their sources. In the 21st century, though, with massive amounts of information available on the Web and on cable or satellite television, among other outlets, the communicator who tells the most compelling story in the most dramatic fashion is sure to gain the most attention from media audiences-regardless of accuracy. That assertion is not a new one, but with a seemingly countless number of news agencies attempting to be first on the scene, mistakes will only increase in the future, to a point at which fictional representations may actually overtake "the news" in terms of knowledge acquisition.

 

References

Marsh, E. J., Meade, M. L., & Roediger, H. L. III (2003). "Learning facts from fiction." Journal of Memory & Language, 49(4), 519-537.

McGinn, C. (2005).The power of movies: How screen and mind interact. New York: Pantheon.

Sanello, F. (2003). Reel v. real: Hollywood turns fact into fiction. New York: Taylor Trade Publishing.

Vankin, J., & Whalen, J. (2005). Based on a true story: Fact and fantasy in 100 favorite movies. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Prindle, D. F. (1993). Risky business: The political economy of Hollywood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

 

 

Bryan E. Denham is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Clemson University. His E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.15, 43-44.