CNN's fake photo from the Paris attacks demonstrates the need for readers to be wary

Just hours after London woke up to another terror attack, breaking news notifications about a car hitting a police van at the Champs-Élysée in Paris reached people across the globe on Monday.

In such situations, details are initially scarce – but journalists are on the hunt for facts, wanting to be the first to report the story and inform their audience. In many organizations, teams scout social media platforms and aggregators to find the key information that no one else has yet, but sometimes, the pressure of beating one’s competitors by being the fastest comes at the detriment of accuracy.

That was the case for CNN’s Breaking News Twitter account on Monday, which used a photo of a black man being arrested by police officers to illustrate their story about the arrest of a man at the Champs-Élysée following the accident. The unsuspecting audience began interacting with the image — viewing it, commenting on it, resharing it — which met every expectation of what we’ve been trained by the news and popular culture to think a similar situation should look like: Authorities arresting a person of color.

There was only one problem with the photograph from Paris. It wasn’t from Paris.

The now-deleted tweet from CNN Breaking News' Twitter account.Twitter

Anyone familiar with what French police uniforms look like could easily realize something with the photograph was off. Here’s an image of uniformed officers in Paris:

Police officers outside the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France on June 6, 2017. Christophe Ena/AP

A simple reverse image search is all that’s needed to reveal the origins of the photograph that CNN used. The image first appeared on June 16, 2016 and depicts the UK police arresting a man near Parliament on suspicion of carrying a knife.

A few minutes after CNN published the photo, it tweeted a correction to rectify the mistake and later deleted both tweets to replace them with a third one.

The correction to the now-deleted CNN Breaking News tweet.Twitter

It was not the first instance in which major media outlets used images from the wrong event to illustrate breaking news, and it probably won’t be the last. Shortly after the 2016 Brussels terrorist attack, Fox News and Sky News used images from Belgium to illustrate the bombing of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.

In the midst of breaking news, context often slips away from images, which get repurposed and have their own life on social media platforms.

Savvy news consumers should be wary of this sort of imagery, and even consider using publicly available tools, like Google’s reverse image search, when an image seems to have been posted to quickly to be realistic. Otherwise, between genuine mistakes by reliable sources and intentional misuse by problematic users, they’ll be getting more #FakeNews than real, even from real news outlets.