Skin Deep

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Here are two newspapers. They depict the same woman, in the same pose, on the same day, in the exact same photograph. Yet there is a very obvious difference between the two, as social media was quick to point out.

Twitter erupted with righteous indignation at The Sun for apparently darkening Gina Miller’s skin tone: it was evocative of early 20th Century practises of “othering” people from non-white ethnic backgrounds, as happened with O.J. Simpson on the infamous Time cover, the long sad history of “brownface,” and far too many casting controversies. It’s a complicated matter that goes beyond race as a concept:

Once established, group-based identities may seem so fundamental that we ordinarily perceive them as “natural.” As one scholar noted, “Race may be widely dismissed as a biological classification, [but] dark skin is an easily observed and salient trait that has become a marker in American society, one imbued with meanings about crime, disorder, and violence, stigmatizing entire categories of people.”41 These associations and shared meanings, in turn, affect our perception of those groups. 42

However, those who were familiar with Ms Miller thought there was something amiss:

It seems more like The Times had actually lightened the picture of Ms Miller, than The Sun had darkened it. Indeed, the original photographer said The Sun did not, in fact, do any such thing:

gina-miller_ben-cawthraAnd Duncan Geddes of The Times confirmed it:

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So. There’s no problem. Right?

Except no, there are several problems here.

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The first is that it shows just what a deplorable, despicable mess the UK media is in when it’s entirely believable that The Sun darkened someone’s skin. Darkening a political opponent’s skin is practically expected after decades of targeting ethnic minorities, so low is the public’s opinion of the press. Certainly the issue was brought up in America, where it was suggested that Barack Obama’s skin tone was dependent on whether the source supported or opposed his election as president.

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Another is that lightening a dark person’s skin has its own implications. If making someone’s skin darker makes them more “foreign,” “racial,” or “ethnic” – in other words, threatening and alienating to a white audience – then surely making someone’s skin lighter would do the opposite? If the logic is that The Sun would do something to appeal to their readership, surely the same can be said for The Times – whether they mean to or not?

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No doubt The Times‘ response would be “we lighten all our pictures: it isn’t to deliberately present darker-skinned people with lighter skin than you would see in most lights,” or possibly “blame the camera exposure, not the editor.” I don’t doubt it was unintentional, which is what makes it worse – because regardless of your intentions, the result is exactly the same, and the fact that this is common practise means that this is a recurring issue. And, scarily, there’s a possibility that The Times simply don’t see it.

Scientists showed undergraduate students a series of digitally darkened or lightened photos of President Barack Obama last fall, and asked them which photos best represented him as a person. The results were striking: while self-described liberals tended to pick the digitally lightened photos of the president, self-described conservative students more frequently picked the darkened images. The more one agrees with a politician, in other words, the lighter his skin tone seems; the less you agree, the darker it becomes [Newsweek]. The study will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to lead researcher Eugene Caruso, they found that the degree to which someone saw a lightened photo as being representative of Obama was related to whether he voted for him a week later. That was true even after the researchers controlled for political views and measures of bias against blacks [NPR]. Caruso says their results indicate that the degree to which you see eye to eye with someone politically can alter your physical perception of them.

By controlling for bias against blacks, the study seems to indicate that race isn’t the issue, but simply how light or dark a person is, though it isn’t totally clear on that point. It also seems to buy in to the claim that Hillary Clinton artificially darkened an image of Obama, which wasn’t terribly widely believed. Anyway, the research’s most practical finding seems to be that devious political hacks don’t need to play games with candidates’ pictures because the voters are doing it themselves [Politico].

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If this research translates to the increasingly Americanised UK, how does it apply here?

Consider: The Sun backed Leave, and so disagree with Ms Miller. The Times backed Remain, and so agree with Ms Miller. So what we see here could be evidence of this phenomenon, but with the twist that it is The Times which – intentionally or not – depicted a figure they happen to agree with lighter skinned than she is in reality, just as American Liberals perceived Obama. Is it possible that, in decrying the perceived colourism of The Sun, people were guilty of it themselves in assuming that the darker photograph was the “fake,” and the lighter one “real”?

All this may be a glimpse at the complexities of race relations in the UK, but what does it mean? It means that we cannot trust “respected” media like The Times, even in comparison to the hated tabloid press – especially considering both are Murdoch dominions. When The Sun and The Times have a contradictory story, for many, the instinct is to side with The Times – after all, it’s a broadsheet, it’s for posh folk, businessmen read it, while The Sun’s just a puerile rag? Yet here we are, The Times published an artificially lightened picture of a dark-skinned woman, and it’s the tabloid which posted a much more representative photograph which ends up decried for racism.

There’s a lesson, here: never think that you are above your own biases, and never assume that it’s only the tabloid press that can be wrong about something.

One thought on “Skin Deep

  1. Excellent analysis. I think a general distrust of the media can’t be underestimated. When readers notice a discrepancy in the same photo between two papers, many naturally assume the worst – that the media outlet showing the image of the individual in a darker light must have altered it. For many, the bias is that the media will do what is more sensational, in this case darkening Ms. Miller’s image, just as Time magazine did 20 years ago with its cover photo of O.J. Simpson. It likely occured to very few that perhaps The Times had instead lightened its image of Ms. Miller.

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