Local view: False images can distort memory of an event

Duluth's flood of 2012 brought an astounding amount of water -- and images, which immediately were shared via social-media and news websites. With the rain still falling that Wednesday morning of June 20, I checked online for photos, flipping thr...

Swamped ship canal
This photo of a swamped Duluth ship canal popped up at social-media and other Internet sites last month as though it was an image from the June 20 flood. The photo actually was taken in November 2001 during a nor'easter that dumped 8 to 10 inches of snow. (Minnesota Sea Grant photo by Jeff Gunderson)

Duluth's flood of 2012 brought an astounding amount of water -- and images, which immediately were shared via social-media and news websites. With the rain still falling that Wednesday morning of June 20, I checked online for photos, flipping through Instagram and scanning quickly growing Facebook photo galleries. The pictures were shocking. A car in a sinkhole. The blurry image of a seal illuminated by headlights. A Grandma's restaurant surrounded by a small lake of water. Forty years from now, these images will create the memory, the visual representation of the flood, especially for those who weren't here when it happened.

That's why one image I found online caused me concern. It was a photo of the Duluth ship canal awash in 10-foot-high waves; water was swamping the piers. Perhaps you saw it, too. It was in several Duluth flood galleries on Facebook. It also was up on Minnesota Public Radio's news site, on Duluth Superior magazine's website, and on popular Duluth and Twin Cities blogs.

Jeff Gunderson, director of the University of Minnesota Sea Grant program, saw the photo online -- and knew immediately it wasn't from the flood. That's because he made the photo more than a decade ago,

during a November 2001 nor'easter that packed wind gusts of up to 52 mph and that dropped 8 to 10 inches of snow on the Duluth area. The storm reshaped Brighton Beach and tore up the Lakewalk.

"I guess you can't control how your photos are used once they get out on the Web," said Gunderson, who originally provided the image to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab, which published it on its website to show different Great Lakes water levels. Gunderson mentioned that a University of Michigan website also misused the photo once as an example of a "sieche," a large and rare wave that occurs on the Great Lakes.


So how did the photo get mixed in with other images of the Duluth flood of 2012?

Many people I spoke with who posted photos said they pulled them from Facebook galleries. Some news sites featured the photo with other social-media photos with little to differentiate them from their staff photos. Perfect Duluth Day, a popular Duluth blog, posted it with other images from social media but removed it after being contacted by Thomas Holden, director of the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center.

"It really bugs me that somebody threw that one out there and got it spread so far," someone commented at the Perfect Duluth Day site. "No, the canal did not flood and the lake didn't look like that (during the flood)."

Some may have been able to pick out the phony flood image, especially if they remembered the 2001 storm. But when I spoke with several teenagers who didn't remember, I got a different response. "Yeah, that's from this flood," one said. "My friend on Facebook said he took it," answered another.

The Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism reported in 2011 that Facebook has become "a critical player" for news-collecting. When Osama bin Laden was killed, I (and many of my 30-year-old peers) first heard the news from a form of social media. The Pew Research Center suspects this will continue to increase, saying that "if searching for news was the most important development of the past decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next."

As evidenced during the Duluth flood, we often look to social media for greater context of news stories. We want to see images and hear our friends' reactions.

But at social-media sites, there's a proliferation of images without context. A picture might be borrowed, re-tweeted or shared after taken out of its original context. In the case of quickly fading memes, it's not that big of a deal. But in the case of historic events, misplaced images like the one of the 2001 storm could distort reality. For example, those of us who weren't here in 1972 use the images from the past to create a visual representation of the actual event. Now, with the proliferation of digital images, the multiple avenues in which to share, and the need to break stories quickly, there are more opportunities for false representations of actual events.

If a false image persists, it will distort our memory of an event. We can protect ourselves against this by providing image context in social-media sites, including where a photo was taken, who took it, and at what site it originally was posted. And news sites need to attribute photos, too, even during breaking news, in order for us to tell the true stories of Duluth storms from the past -- and those yet to come.


Jonathon Heide is a 1998 graduate of Duluth Central High School, an ISA-certified arborist, and a communications professor at North Central University in Minneapolis.

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