With people’s tolerance of confinement starting to strain, the media has been paying close attention to crowds seemingly violating social distancing advice, with photographs taken using telephoto lenses potentially misrepresenting the density of people at certain locations. Deliberate or not, are camera lenses creating fake news?
The issue flared in the British media last week when tabloid newspapers were accused of manufacturing outrage by deliberately publishing photographs that were shot using telephoto lenses. As this Twitter thread explains, a photograph showed a densely packed boulevard, suggesting that government advice was being ignored. Closer examination, it is argued, suggests that the 40 people were in fact spread out across almost half a mile.
In the U.S., a photograph published by the O.C. Register suggested that the beach in San Clemente was packed with sun-seekers, all blissfully ignoring social distancing:
The image in full can be seen here. Five days later, this photograph led California Governor Gavin Newsom to close all of the beaches in Orange County which in turn prompted crowds to gather to protest against the order. Newsom was later accused of making decisions in response to a misleading photograph rather than actual data.
The O.C. Register later published the metadata from the controversial image in response to suggestions that it was not taken when it was claimed or had been manipulated. The EXIF data shows that it was shot at a focal length of 380mm on a Nikon D5.
Lens compression at 380mm is very noticeable, as detailed in this Fstoppers article from a few years ago, and discussed in the KTLA segment shown above. Here’s the gif mentioned by presenter Andy Riesmeyer:
The contrast with the helicopter footage is stark, though, as the presenters note, it's impossible to make a genuine comparison without having more information.
The response from O.C. Register makes for some interesting reading. While the question of whether people should be congregating in any numbers will no doubt draw impassioned debate, it's fascinating to see how a straight news photo has the potential to mislead, reminding us that fake news is not necessarily politically driven, and can be highly complex. Certainly, none of this is helped by the fact that, despite the best intentions, advice and regulations in response to the global pandemic can seem inconsistent, unenforceable, and illogical.
Leave your thoughts in the comments below.