This Week: Photos, Truth, and Propaganda


The last few issues of Nygaard Notes have been extra long, and a thoughtful reader wrote recently to say that they have been TOO long. I actually agree. Thank you, Bill! They’ve also been less frequent, as I’ve been doing a lot of research, probably too much research.

So… This issue is back to “normal” length, which is about 2,000 words. If I feel the urge to write longer pieces, I’ll try to split them into smaller pieces and extend them over several issues. At least, that’s my intention. We’ll see.

Happy Summer!



As always, if you want to download a printable PDF version of this issue of Nygaard Notes, just click HERE.

“Quote” of the Week: “Our Unity of Purpose Regarding Migration”

It went almost unreported in this country, but the United Nations a couple of weeks ago unanimously signed off on a major international agreement on global migration. Well, it wasn’t actually unanimous, but 193 countries approved it. The only one missing when it came time to vote on the Global Compact For Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was the United States. Our government began a boycott of the process last December (no U.S. media outlet bothered to report this, as far as I know).

The boycott notwithstanding, it’s a remarkable consensus on a remarkable document. Here are a couple of inspiring paragraphs that form this week’s “Quote” of the Week:

This Global Compact expresses our collective commitment to improving cooperation on international migration. Migration has been part of the human experience throughout history, and we recognize that it is a source of prosperity, innovation and sustainable development in our globalized world, and that these positive impacts can be optimized by improving migration governance. The majority of migrants around the world today travel, live and work in a safe, orderly and regular manner. Nonetheless, migration undeniably affects our countries, communities, migrants and their families in very different and sometimes unpredictable ways.

It is crucial that the challenges and opportunities of international migration unite us, rather than divide us. This Global Compact sets out our common understanding, shared responsibilities and unity of purpose regarding migration, making it work for all.

You may wish to read the document. Find it HERE.

Photos and Truth

In early May the Trump administration began to implement its “zero tolerance” policy that supposedly calls for the prosecution of all individuals who attempt to illegally enter the United States. It’s a claim so ludicrous that I’m embarrassed to discuss it—I mean, what would it have cost to prosecute the 11+ million people who are here “illegally”?—but discuss it I shall because I want to make a point about visual images, thinking, feeling, and truth. So stick with me for a moment as I discuss two related images relating to this issue, both of which are true and both of which are false.

One of the effects of this “zero tolerance” policy, which reportedly was implemented in early May, has been to separate immigrant children from their families. The policy sparked so much public outrage that the policy was rescinded on June 20th. As these words are written, many families have yet to be reunited.

The popular outpouring of compassion for the desperate families and outrage at the cruel policy is encouraging. One photo in particular came to symbolize the cruelty, and that was a photo of a 2-year-old Honduran girl in a pink jacket. The unbearably sad image of the toddler crying for her mother was referenced in a June 21st Reuters report:

“The powerful original photograph, taken at the scene of a border detention by Getty Images photographer John Moore, became one of the iconic images in the flurry of media coverage about the separation of families by the Trump administration.”

At the height of the outrage at the separation of families, the Trump White House struck back with its own attempt to engender outrage, apparently desiring to change the narrative on the issue of separation of families. On June 22nd Mr. Trump appeared before the press with a group of a dozen-or-so people who have lost family members due to the actions of immigrants, ranging from murder to drunk driving. Here’s how the President described the gathering:

“We’re gathered today to hear directly from the American victims of illegal immigration. You know, you hear the other side. You never hear this side. You don’t know what’s going on. These are the American citizens permanently separated from their loved ones—the word ‘permanently’ being the word that you have to think about—‘permanently.’ They’re not separated for a day or two days. These are permanently separated, because they were killed by criminal illegal aliens.”

The President added, “We call these brave Americans the Angel Families—Angel moms, Angel pops. These are the Angel Families.” (It is common in U.S. political culture to confuse, as the President does here, victims and angels or, more commonly, victims and heroes. It’s a politically useful confusion, but no time to go into it here.)

Here the conservative Washington Times explains how Mr. Trump attempted to reinforce his core message that immigration = crime: “Mr. Trump cited statistics of crime committed by immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally, including 600,000 criminal offenses committed by more than 250,000 migrants over the past seven years in Texas alone. He also noted that 15,000 Americans died of heroin overdoses in 2016, with 90 percent of heroin coming across the southern border.”

Image of a crying girl. Image of grieving families. Both images are true. And false.

The image of the little girl crying is true in the sense that there are indeed some unknown number of children who have been traumatized by forcible separation from their families. And the “truth” of it is summed up by photographer Moore, who told CBS News: “Oftentimes, immigration is talked about in terms of statistics, and when you put a human face and humanize an issue, you make people feel. And when you make people feel, they have compassion. And if I’ve done just a little bit of that, then that’s OK.”

On the other hand, the image of the crying girl is literally false in the sense that, while the photo was widely understood to be a portrayal of the anguish caused by the separation of children from their families, the actual girl in the actual photo was apparently never separated from her mother.

This error was reported at the time, by CBS News among others. As the girl’s father told the Reuters news service, the girl and her mother “have been detained together in the Texas border town of McAllen, where [her mother] has applied for asylum, and they were not separated after being detained near the border.”

Now, as for the image(s) of the grieving families, they were true in the sense that there are indeed families who have suffered greatly due to being victims of crimes committed by people who are in the United States without official permission.

But the implied message being conveyed here—implied in the President’s remarks as well as the very fact of having a media event featuring his “Angel Families”—is the message that greater numbers of “illegal” immigrants results in greater crime. And that message is false in every important respect. I’ll quote here from a study called “Urban Crime Rates and the Changing Face of Immigration: Evidence Across Four Decades,” which was published in the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice right around the time that Mr. Trump was elected President. Such peer-reviewed papers typically begin with a brief summary of the full study, called an “abstract.” Here’s the abstract for this 2016 paper:

Research has shown little support for the enduring proposition that increases in immigration are associated with increases in crime. Although classical criminological and neoclassical economic theories would predict immigration to increase crime, most empirical research shows quite the opposite. We investigate the immigration-crime relationship among metropolitan areas over a 40 year period from 1970 to 2010. Our goal is to describe the ongoing and changing association between immigration and a broad range of violent and property crimes. Our results indicate that immigration is consistently linked to decreases in violent (e.g., murder) and property (e.g., burglary) crime throughout the time period.

I added the emphasis in that quotation to emphasize that the link between immigration and decreases in crime rates is well established, so well established that many news outlets reported the counter-evidence to the President’s claims when he made them last month. If you want more evidence, type “illegal immigration and crime” into your search engine.

When confronted with such ambiguity, the temptation is to throw up one’s hands and say “You just can’t believe anything in the fake news.” Don’t do that! Read the next essay instead.

Images That Inform, Images That Deceive

I’ve been talking about two stories and two images in the news—the image of a crying toddler and the image of grieving crime victims—and I claim that both are true and both are false. Sometimes visual images in the news serve to deepen our understanding of current events. Sometimes they lead us down Propaganda Lane. What to do? Here’s a three-step process to use when encountering emotional images in the daily news.

Step #1: Notice Your Emotional Reaction

Becoming conscious of our emotional reactions is a good thing to do with any bit of new information, but especially with visual images. Photos and videos have a powerful ability to elicit emotions, far more powerful than words. (It pains me, as a writer, to say this!) Notice when an image enrages you or reassures you, excites you or calms you. Then ask yourself what is connected to that emotional reaction. The simple act of bringing to consciousness our emotional response is a powerful anti-propaganda tool. Visual images are often designed to stimulate certain emotional responses, and if you find that you are moved to act based on your emotional response, it’s a good idea to be aware of that, and to give it some thought. Before acting.

Step #2: Name and Assess the Message

Take a few minutes to examine the message being reinforced by the image, and ask yourself if that message is valid. In the case of the image of the crying girl mentioned elsewhere in this issue, the message is that small children are being traumatized as a result of U.S. immigration policy. True? Check it out.

In the case of the image of grieving crime victims, the message is that increased immigration leads to increased crime. As we have seen, that’s not true, and it would take only a moment to find this out. In the current example, all that was necessary in most cases was to read the actual article, as many media reports did refute the claim as it was being reported.

I discussed these first two Steps in the previous essay. But not the next Step.

Step #3: Propaganda Check

Remember that propaganda operates on two levels. The first level, Overt Propaganda, is the specific thing that the viewer is supposed to believe. The second level, Deep Propaganda, is the idea, or set of ideas, that make the Overt Propaganda believable. Overt Propaganda is specific and conscious, and it comes from outside of ourselves. Deep Propaganda tends to be general and unconscious, and it lives inside of us.

If you’ve already noticed your emotional reaction (Step 1) and named the message that provoked your reaction (Step 2), then you’re halfway there. If the Overt Propaganda equating immigration with crime is easy to believe—despite being false—then ask yourself: What is the Deep Propaganda in my head that makes it believable? Perhaps it’s bigotry of one sort or another. In a deeply-racist society, a charge of criminality against dark-skinned people just “makes sense” to many white people. And, since so much of our political and media leadership are white, the rightness of the message will tend to be strongly reinforced. Similarly, xenophobia may be the Deep Propaganda that makes immigrants seem threatening to native-born white people, which provides an emotional basis to support the idea that immigrants are dangerous criminals. Living in a society that does so much to normalize whiteness (and pathologize anyone who doesn’t fit in that box) leads many white people to create fables about the “other” that serve a Deep Propaganda function such as we see here. We’re all infected with Deep Propaganda; it’s a social disease.

“The Answer Is It’s Not True”

Now, having done our homework, let’s look again at our two images, and how both of them are true and false, and make some judgements.

The image of the little girl crying enhanced my ability to empathize. When I learned later that this girl was not separated from her mother, it really didn’t change anything, because I know that there are many other children who have been separated and who could have been photographed. So the image, while literally false, was “true” in the sense that it supported an emotional understanding of something that is actually going on. I’d call that good journalism.

The grieving families image was “true” in the sense that these people have indeed suffered due to the actions of immigrants. But the message that was reinforced by seeing and hearing the anguish of these families—that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than native-born USAmericans—is false.

The President, in his remarks at the Angel Families event on June 22nd, said: “I always hear that, ‘Oh, no, the population [of immigrants] is safer than the people that live in the country.’ You’ve heard that, fellas. Right? You’ve heard that. I hear it so much. And I say, ‘Is that possible?’ The answer is it’s not true. You hear it’s like they’re better people than what we have—than our citizens. It’s not true.”

As we’ve seen, it IS true, and whether or not the President is lying or actually believes what he is saying here does not interest me; the propaganda effect is the same either way.

Images in the news can enhance our emotional understanding of actual social realities. And I know that they can also stimulate emotions that reinforce Deep Propaganda ideas that already exist in the culture, and in me. Deeper understanding? Or Propaganda? Following the three-step process outlined here can help us to tell the difference.