Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Misidentified Black Person of the Week

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, 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.


timmer said...

Brilliant. Incredibly disturbing. But Brilliant.

Anonymous said...

fwiw, captions are often written by copy editors, not the writers of the story, so there's definitely opportunity for miscommunication (or for the wrong picture to get attached to a caption). especially when names are similar or the same. and your copy editor is a 50-year-old woman who works graveyard and doesn't have cable.

not that this explains every occurrence or even most, of course, i just want to point out the weaknesses in the system before people start making wholesale judgments about the people who run it. :)

Anonymous said...

Hummm. Interesting. If that is to be true of media, which has access to vast amounts of sources to verify information, what is to be said about other forms of identifying 'blacks'? Eye witnesses to crimes, perhaps? The accuracy of eye witnesses has already been looked at in research, but not often publicly discussed.

Jason Kramer said...

Great idea, but to really be useful it seems like you'd have to compare misidentified blacks to misidentified whites and other races, and see if the mistakes really are race-based and not just sloppy errors, which copy editors (I'm a former one myself) are prone to.

Kid Charlemagne said...

Undercover is just that, undercover. The black popoulation is approximately 15 to 20 percent (More like 12%) of the total US population. Not only is the black population misrepresented it is MISIDENTIFIED way too frequent for the small say so. The longer we continue to let these misses continue, the more damage it will continue do.

Dr Skylaser said...

First: You're dead-on, it's shamelessly and bizarrely careless in most instances.

Second: Are you familiar with the research finding that people are actually better at distinguishing between members of their own race than members of another? This is usually explained as a sort of category expertise--people see more of the human-face subcategory of their own race, and so are better at telling the difference between them. Doesn't excuse carelessness, but it's an interesting and sorta depressing note.

Anonymous said...

Oh poor poor thing.

Did you feel sorry when CNN misidentified Barack Obama as 'Osama Bin Laden'? Or are you just a black person being persecuted for your color all over again. Cuz you know blacks ain't never done nothing wrong. Ever.

mymtest said...


Would love to see screencaps and/or links for these.

This makes me want to go write a quiz for copy editors. I wonder if "" is taken?

Jimmy Gatt said...

"Incredibly disturbing."

Incredibly disturbing? Grow a thicker skin. I think this is telling, interesting, and sad, but not "incredibly disturbing."

I reserve "incredibly disturbing" for things like the government using orphaned black children as human guinea pigs for HIV drug experiments.

Not that I mean to steal anyone's thunder.

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks to all who've dropped in and posted comments. If you guys are reflective of what's going on on the Freakonomics boards, I need to make time in my busy day and hang out there.

Jason: So far I've found a small handful of examples with white celebrities. Like this from Science magazine: "The caption accompanying the photo misidentified the actor in the role of King Solomon. The actor was Tyrone Power, not Yul Brynner."

I've worked in newsrooms. I'm not expecting perfection. Brain farts will happen. But the frequency with which this happens with well-known black folks is a true mystery.

Queen of Sheba: Race differences in facial recognition I've only heard about after raising this issue. It's fascinating, and I'll have to read more about it.

On the other hand, a young niece of mine plays volleyball, and I went to a tournament where one team was from Hawaii. Swear to God, all the girls on that Hawaiian team looked like sisters. They truly all looked alike. But at least in that case, there's a reason for them to look alike: Native Hawaiians compose a small, endogamous population... we're talking about a pretty tight gene pool.

Whereas American blacks... with all the race-mixing that's gone on, there's not a more genetically diverse ethnic group on Earth, except maybe for the Jews. I mean, objectively, Serena Williams looks nothing like Beyonce. Yet that mistake happened.

Liz: Since I'm tracking down these errors mostly via published corrections online, I'm not seeing the original screw-ups. It's like chasing phantoms.

Anonymous said...

I read the facial recognition study and remember the following. Black people recognize things like shape of ears and hairline. Normal people recognize eye and hair color since those differ more than in a group of black people.

When I am with a group of white people and need to point out a black person, it is fun to say the "guy in the grey hooded sweatshirt", or the "guy with the gold teeth". Invariably, they say "oh, you mean the black guy?"

Anonymous said...

What on earth does anonymous mean by "normal" people? Human infants learn to distinguish between faces based on the dimensions that change most frequently; historically, most humans have belonged to relatively homogeneous populations in which all the people you would know would exhibit only small differences. Any member of a different population, such as another ethnic group (or giraffes, or flowers) would blend in with all other members of that group, simply because there would be no need to remember the little details - there was already a big difference. It's not the case that people have an easier time distinguishing between members of their own group because because they can see more internal differerences - they just pay more attention to smaller differences because that's all there is to suggest difference. In other words, to any human, all members of a group look alike, including their own. That's no excuse for rampant misidentification of darker-skinned people in the media, which I suspect is due primarily to lazy editing, but hopefully it will correct some of the mistaken comments above.

Anonymous said...

UBM, I suspect that the racial facial-recognition thing is going to be the main factor here. Your experience with the Hawaiians is a great example. I'm sure they don't think they look alike.

It'd be interesting to see if this sort of thing happens to, say, Koreans in Japan.

(Odd, inversely related story: My grandparents honeymooned in Hawaii and were treated like royalty. Turned out that they thought my grandmother (a full-blooded Pole) was Hawaiian.)

Kid Charlemagne said...


The comments just keep flowing. From the brushed off to the social science perspective. My earlier comment was to emphasize how we as a society underestimate and minimalize the minority and or sub culture of a population.

Perhaps the story and part of the blame has to do with technology. Look at what we are doing (Blogging). The internal working components of journalism and communication are not given the detail that it once was. The way in which the media operates "today" exponentially brings such misrepresentations to the forefront. (More like a linear regression)

The bigger issue or question might be: Were these misidentifications happening in the pre digital age? Did they happen as frequent? Maybe we could assume they did (And maybe more often) because technology has afforded us a greater chance to access such errors and omissions.

Bottom line is it needs to stop as we have an opportunity to reverse or undue some of the wrongs that have contributed to the way in which society operates. A lobbying type of effort aimed at the media needs to right the ship that we sail on!

Undercover Black Man said...

Kid Charlemagne: I should've started keeping track of this phenomenon when it happened to me (the Avery Brooks/Samuel L. Jackson mix-up) 20 years ago, in the pre-digital journalism days.

One would think that the Internet would make such mistakes less likely. In that if there's any doubt as to what somebody looks like, you can just go online and find a picture of anybody.

On the other hand, there are simply so many more photos being distributed today on the Net... Reuters and AP and Getty Images posting whole slideshows for every red-carpet event... that's gotta increase the number of errors, due to sheer mathematics.

I think shame might be an effective corrective here. Media professionals are proud people... these mistakes hold them up to ridicule more than anything else. I don't care how they do it, but I hope they try to minimize this crap.

Anonymous said...

One may be insulted by this behavior when that one assumes "whiteness" can be turned off like flipping the bozo bit.

We often complain about these "mistakes" based on the implication that the offender can simply press a secret button and switch off their offensiveness.

More study reveals to me that switching this behavior off would eventually mean the end of Western civilization as we know it. Look at how they treat each other (for example the North American Revolution was paid for in large part by France. What do self-described "white" Americans pop-culturally think of France now?). So watch out... you might get what you are after... and "we" may not be prepared for a world without whiteness...

Unknown said...

As A White American, I take serious offense everytime a white person is "mis-captioned" in the media. Which means I live a horrible existence, as it happens roughly 42,456 times a day worldwise.

Lighten up, Francis.

McMonkey said...

Bryan Willhite,

That is certainly one extreme viewpoint. So, basically you're saying that without racism Western Civilization will end. Not sure I'm buying this one, might need a little more explanation. You know, something a little more conclusive than "the French helped us 230 years ago and now the opinion of them has changed."

The complaint and insult doesn't stem from thinking the behavior can be instantly changed. It stems from the fact that for how many years now, this kind of dismissive behavior toward other entire races of people is still being taught (by families and in this case the media) and rearing its head.

Your (IMO baseless) implication that if we keep pushing for true equality will somehow have dire consequences to our society or the world is the same kind of fear mongering that has slowed progress.

My $0.02

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you've seen this video. But here's a link to a video of a black woman interviewing Marin Lawrence, confusing him for Eddie Murphy and asking him if he was in Norbit.

Beat that!

Anonymous said...

Just in case the previous link didn't work:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I found UBM, this is really interesting blog. I appreciate these intelligent discussions about Black history and culture---wish there was more of them.

I think A should get the award for locating the clip of the interviewer mistaking Martin Lawrence for Eddie Murphy. The irony (considering the earlier discussion of facial recognition) is that the interviewer is a BLACK woman. WOW!

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks for coming, Jen.

And belated thanks, a, for that Martin Lawrence clip. If it was white chick who made that mistake, she mighta got slapped!

Ron Amos said...

This discussion reminds me of something that happened in Buffalo New York State Hospital in 1964 when I was a patient there. On the back ward where I was there was a black guy and a white guy who looked exactly alike except for their complexion. I observed this for a few weeks and then I decided it was worthy of comment. So I started pointing it out to everyone I met, no one could see what I meant, the facial features and body structure were the same... even the movements were very similar. I told the black guy what I saw... he was insulted.. that isn't a white guy that's a Jew, the white guy was also insulted "What not me, I don't look like no black guy.

I was there for several months and never, not once could I get anyone to look clearly and see that the features and bodies were identical.. the guys could have been identical twins except for the complexion.

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks for commenting, Ron. Sounds like the makings of an interesting psych experiment.

Anonymous said...

I admit I often recognize casual caucasian acquaintances by hair color/style more than anything else because it is an easily recognized variable. I also, because I tend to use this as my primary identifier, cannot keep track of casual acquaintances who, or instance, all have long fake blonde hair. The problem occurs with any group where there is little color variation in hair or in any instance where there is some very popular style.

Of course, this only occurs with people who are not terribly important to recognize and I think others may use the same technique for people who are relatively less important to them than a friend or co-worker.

Where does this enter into the photo error discussion? Who are the copy editors for these papers? Most likely they are people who would not know these celebrities because they do not consume the media produced by the misidentified celebrities. That would mean they have less reason to have a good mechanism for identifying those individuals.

Just a thought.

Unknown said...

Found this on JesusGeneral by way of CrooksandLiars. The very deinition of the Misidentified Black Person. In more ways than one.

Unknown said...

The html part got cut off. Try this and scroll down to August 2, 2007 to Fox's Black Problem.

Misidentified Black person with extreme predjudice.