Critical Thinking

Should Detention Center Photos Provided By the Government Be Considered Propaganda?


Critical Thinking September 2018

Recently, the news media wasn’t allowed to take photos of detention centers for immigrant children; instead they were issued pictures provided by the government. Should these photos be considered propaganda? 

Madalyn Amato, 20, sophomore, Fullerton (Calif.) Junior College

Amato is a photojournalist who specializes in topics relating to social issues, politics and human rights. She has more than four years experience in the field of journalism and photography.

In May, the Trump administration began to follow through with its campaign promise of “zero tolerance” towards illegal immigration and began the process of separating families at the Mexican-American border. Detainment of immigrants apprehended at the border in holding cells is not a new policy. However, the separation of children as young as five years old from their guardian is.

Once news broke of the establishment of detainment centers, coined “tender-age facilities” by the administration, journalists from around the world descended upon the south-Texas housing units, only to be met with countless obstacles and no answers. Any photo published from inside the detention centers has been provided by the U.S. government. No independent investigative organization has been allowed to document the conditions these children are being forced to live in. Few journalists have been allowed to enter the facilities, but have returned empty handed without any concrete evidence to back up their claims.

If everything was just as the administration promised—clean living conditions, ample care for the children, their well-being a top priority—then why will they not allow third-party documentation?

When the allies liberated concentration camps across Germany in 1945, the world was shocked. It was known that persons deemed “impure” to live in Adolf Hitler’s Aryan society were being held in camps. However, little was known about the conditions inside of the camps. How could a government entity fool the entire world? Propaganda. Hitler’s government has been accredited as one of the most successful propaganda-producing machines of all time.

Now not to say that Trump is the new Hitler, but the stark similarities between how both men carried out their detainment programs cannot be ignored. All channels of information in Germany were controlled by the Nazi party. Images and films depicting life in the ghettos and camps were directed and produced by the government. Fast-forward to 2018, history is repeating itself. Propaganda being produced by the Trump administration has been called “skewed” and inaccurate by those allowed to enter the detainment centers.

Publication of these images is wholly irresponsible and potentially dangerous as it promotes the agenda of the administration and denies the truth of what’s really going on inside the walls of these facilities.

John R. Moses, 56, news content director, Farmington (N.M.) Daily Times

Moses joined the Daily Times in 2017. Previously he served as editor of the Jackson (Wyo.) Hole News & Guide. Moses and his wife were also the founders of the Alaska Pioneer Press, a monthly newspaper and website. 

There is nothing to be gained, and it would serve our readers poorly, if news organizations accept those kinds of official photos without protest and run them without context.

We have no information about what was happening around the children in those images. Whether they are propaganda—quite a loaded word but sometimes it fits—or simply governmental public relations is beside the point. Their existence illustrates the problem: The government would not let news professionals photograph conditions in those centers.

We should not just accept such photos and slap them into our stories. Those photos should only have been used if clearly labeled as what they are: an example of what the federal government wants people to see. They are not news, except in the context that it is news that our photographers can’t get access to do their jobs and document conditions in those centers. The photos must be paired with boots-on-the-ground reporting that describes what the photos do not show.

Used in that context (this is what the government has released and not like a staff or wire service photo), they are acceptable for consideration as they illustrate the access problem. It is up to individual editorial teams to decide whether such photos are run or spiked. It is increasingly hard to get information from our federal agencies. (At the Daily Times, we’ve been trying to get information from the Department of the Interior since October. Our FOIA request seems to reside in a deep, dark hole.)

Given how hard it can be sometimes to get the most basic information, news organizations cannot reward federal agencies that seek to restrict our access.

We also need to push back, and that will take some leadership by our professional organizations as well as editorial boards across the nation.


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