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Spin Control: Leaving reality out of the picture

A picture is only worth a thousand words if it’s the right picture for the intended words.

When it’s the wrong picture, it’s worth considerably fewer words, and more trouble, as demonstrated in two separate instances last week on the West Side.

One involved an attempt to convince Boeing the state really, really, really wants the company to build its super-spiffy 777X somewhere within our borders. The Washington Aerospace Partnership, an organization of business, labor and government types intent on conveying the best possible “pretty please,” decided to gin up support in a fairly old-school way, with a full-page ad in Wednesday’s Seattle Times. (Apparently no one could come up with a really good 140-character message to tweet and retweet, or a Facebook post for the rest of the state to like.)

Despite the Machinist union’s rejection of an extension to its labor contract, the partnership’s ad admonished legislators to pass a transportation package to show the state was “still in the hunt” for production of the new plane. With a big headline that said “The Future of Washington” and a stock photo of a jetliner winging its way through some puffy clouds, the ad seemed designed to give Boeing the kind of warm fuzzies that would prompt it to say, “Oh, heck. Let’s just skip all this shopping around and break ground on a new Washington factory where everyone loves us.”

Except that the plane wasn’t a Boeing 777. It wasn’t a Boeing 7-anything. It was an Airbus jet, which is like designing an ad to ask WSU grads to donate to their old alma mater and using a photo of the Huskies dancing in the end zone after the winning touchdown in an Apple Cup.

It’s true the two planes look somewhat alike, in that they both have wings, a tail and two engines. But as any Spokesman-Review reporter who has ever misidentified an airplane – which we do from time to time – will tell you, there are lots of people in Washington who know their planes. Misidentifying a KC-135A as a KC-135E can cause our phones to ring off the hook. On something like an Airbus versus a Boeing, it’s a sure bet that people will catch it. And they did.

As an aside, the state seemed no closer to passing the transportation package at the end of last week than it was on Wednesday, but the Times ad probably can’t be blamed for that.

A less public photo snafu, also traceable to the dangers of the indiscriminate use of photos, befell the Web masters of the state Senate Republican Caucus, who wanted a photo to illustrate a hearing on human trafficking and its tie to the sex industry.

The hearing by the Law and Justice Committee was held the previous week in the Gonzaga Law School’s Moot Courtroom. It was by most measures a successful session that outlined what the state is doing to cut down on the crime of buying, kidnapping or otherwise securing people – mostly girls and young women – and turning them into sex slaves. Shared Hope International praised the Legislature for its work and Washington got an A for its laws fighting sex trafficking. (Over in Idaho, they got a D.)

The photo used to illustrate the hearing featured a wide-eyed white girl with a large, black hand reaching out of the darkness to grab her shoulder and another large, black hand clapped over her mouth. The problem? While it plays into some scary stereotypes that white Americans might have, minorities are much more likely to be victims of sex trafficking than white folks.

Committee Chairman Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, who is well aware of those statistics, said he didn’t select the photo and didn’t even see it before GOP Senate staff took it down Wednesday.

“I would have not put it up. I don’t approve of it,” Padden said.

This, too, was a “stock photo,” one that has been used other places to illustrate sex trafficking or child pornography, primarily on websites with ties to religious organizations. The wide-eyed girl is no more a victim of sex trafficking than the clouds around the Airbus jet are in Washington skies.

For both the GOP caucus staff and the Aerospace Partnership, last week’s lesson should be clear. Do sweat the small stuff, and be sure your illustration calls attention to the message, not the illustration.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at www.spokesman.com/spincontrol. You can find the photo for the sex trafficking hearing there.


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