Why can’t mainstream media outlets tell black people apart?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Vogue thinks this is Zadie SmithDavid Mills just wrote a great post for Poynter Online (thanks Timothy!) that asks:

Ever notice how black people are often misidentified in newspaper and magazine photo captions? I mean famous black people. It’s a weird phenomenon.

(Remember when Vogue mislabeled the photo to the right as Zadie Smith?)

I was actually talking about this just last weekend when I met up with Mai, one of the masterminds behind Tripmaster Monkey. She had noticed this phenomenon too, and I wondered how it came about? After all, if you’re searching for a photo to illustrate an article, presumably you would type in the correct person’s name, right?

Could it be, as Mai suggested, that it’s the photo agencies who are messing up? A photo was mislabeled, and therefore when you type in “Al Sharpton” you end up with a photo of Barack Obama? (Oh I forgot, he’s not really black. :) ) And that mistake keeps getting passed along the way all the way until it hits the printing presses?

Even if that’s the case, how is it that publications with such high standards for accuracy don’t catch such egregious mistakes? I mean, we’re talking really famous people here. Mills writes:

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).

Have a look at some of the examples Mills notes:

Media Outlet: Rolling Stone
Supposed to be: Al Sharpton, activist
Actually a photo of: Fred Wesley, trombonist

Media Outlet: Reuters
Supposed to be: Shondra Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy
Actually a photo of: Chandra Wilson, actress on Grey’s Anatomy

Media Outlet: Associated Press
Supposed to be: Lena Horne, jazz singer
Actually a photo of: Leontyne Price, opera singer

Media Outlet: New York Times (2 mistakes in one photo)
Supposed to be: Lil’ Kim, recording artist
Actually a photo of: Foxy Brown, recording artist
Supposed to be: Jay-Z, recording artist
Actually a photo of: R. Kelly, recording artist

Media Outlet: The Washington Times
Supposed to be: Marvin Gaye, recording artist
Actually a photo of: Robert C. Bobb, D.C. City Administrator

Media Outlet: Associated Press
Supposed to be: Chris Rock, actor
Actually a photo of: Chris Tucker, actor