After the death last week of Joe Hunter – an esteemed Motown studio musician – the Reuters news service misidentified him in a group picture, and had to correct it.
Ever notice how often black folks get misidentified in newspaper and magazine photo captions? I mean famous black folks. A lot more famous than Joe Hunter.
In last month’s James Brown tribute issue of Rolling Stone magazine, there’s a photo on page 48 with this caption: “Brown with Sharpton in 1974.” But the man seated next to J.B. isn’t the Rev. Al Sharpton; it’s trombonist Fred Wesley. (Sharpton told his radio talk-show audience: “It ain’t me.”)
Never mind Rev. Al’s overexposed mug; Fred Wesley is one of the great musicians, arrangers and bandleaders in funk and soul music going back 35 years. The editors of Rolling Stone oughta know what the man looks like!
I brought this up on a comment page two weeks ago. Now I’d like to stretch out on the topic.
Reuters distributed a photo of the female stars of “Grey’s Anatomy” at the Golden Globes last month. The caption identified the black woman standing in the middle, holding the trophy, as “writer Shonda Rhimes.” Wrong. It was actress Chandra Wilson. Reuters issued a correction.
On the reader feedback page at Reuters.com, someone asked: “Whoever thought Chandra Wilson looks like the creator of Grey's Anatomy Shonda Rhimes? For one, Shonda Rhimes the creator is taller and she wore black.”
“Several readers noticed this one,” the editor posted in response. “We corrected.” (“Several” noticed, huh? Chandra Wilson is only watched by, like, 24 million viewers a week!)
Such misidentification can occur within the body of a story. The Associated Press moved the following correction on January 6: “In a Jan. 3 story about the death of former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, The Associated Press misidentified a singer who appeared in a concert in Jerusalem to mark Israel's 30th Independence Day. The singer was Leontyne Price, not Lena Horne.”
Sometimes it happens in the story and in the photo caption. Check out this double-whammy of a correction published in the New York Times on November 6, 2004:
“A review of the concert film ‘Fade to Black’ in Weekend yesterday misidentified a star appearing in the film with the rapper Jay-Z. She was Foxy Brown, not Lil' Kim. Because of an editing error, a picture caption misidentified the singer dressed all in white. He was R. Kelly, not Jay-Z.”
(Jay-Z, Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim were born and raised in New York City. The Times is their hometown paper!)
I have observed this phenomenon first-hand. In the late 1980s, as a feature writer for the Washington Times, I wrote a piece about a cable-TV movie, and I’d interviewed its star, Avery Brooks. Insight magazine reprinted the story, and ran a photo of co-star Samuel L. Jackson over the caption “Avery Brooks.” Imagine my embarrassment.
I confronted an editor about this, and she kind of laughed it off. I don’t think Insight even bothered to run a correction. At that point, Sam Jackson wasn't the movie star he is today. But black folks in D.C. were seriously digging Avery Brooks as Hawk on “Spenser: For Hire.” So any black person who picked up that magazine and saw that error probably felt a little pinprick of insult. “Guess they think we all look alike.”
That’s what’s so amusing and/or annoying about this phenomenon. It links to that old racist trope of “they all look alike.” And I simply can’t imagine the media so frequently misidentifying white people of similar status (nor can I find evidence of it).
Here’s a correction the Washington Post published last year: “In some Nov. 8 editions, a photo caption with a Style article misidentified Massachusetts Gov.-elect Deval Patrick as Senate candidate Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee.”
That was in the Washington Post, which prides itself on its coverage of politics.
Sometimes you can see how a mix-up occurred. Like last February, when a Cleveland Browns fan magazine mislabeled a picture of Eric Metcalf as “Terry Metcalf” (Eric’s father).
Sometimes there's just no freakin' clue. Like with this printed correction from 2005: “The Washington Times yesterday inadvertently published a photograph of D.C. City Administrator Robert C. Bobb misidentified as the late soul singer Marvin Gaye.”
Blogger Anil Dash took note of this phenomenon in 2002, citing one AP photo caption that misidentified Chris Tucker as Chris Rock, and another that confused actor DeAngelo Wilson with soul singer D’Angelo.
This may happen to Chris Rock a lot. The Philadelphia Inquirer last May ran the following correction: “Steven Rea’s ‘On Movies’ column... incorrectly referred to Chris Rock as the star of the movie Block Party. The movie starred Dave Chappelle.” (Hat-tip to Craig Silverman at Regret the Error.)
“Could it just be coincidence? Yeah, I guess,” Anil Dash blogged. “But it’s all over the place. Most photo corrections are spelling fixes, but then you get things like Scottie Pippen being misidentified. At the very least, it’s a sign of a remarkable lack of cultural literacy amongst this group of photojournalists.”
Well, I’m starting up a database. I want to get a sense of just how often this happens. So, please, anyone who comes across a well-known black person misidentified in a photo caption (or in the text of a news story), let me know via email. If you see any well-known whites misidentified, I'd like to know that too. For comparison's sake.