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UK freelance journalist and author Sean McManus

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The Sun and Daily Mail hoaxed by ghostly iPhone app

05 March 2010

Here's a photo I took at Gloucester Cathedral last year:

Photo of Gloucester Cathedral stained glass windows, with a ghost of a small girl in the foreground

But wait! What's that figure in the foreground? Is it the ghost of a small girl in Victorian clothing, perhaps risen from its burial place beneath the cold stone floor, and destined to walk the corridors in search of rest?

Or have I tampered with the picture?

The answer to that should be obvious, but both The Sun and the Daily Mail were hoodwinked by a similar picture. If you're quick you can read the full Daily Mail article here, and The Sun's story is here. The photo is credited to Hull News & Picture, which says it does "editorial digital photography".

The photographer John Fores is a builder, and took his photo at a school he was demolishing. He claimed that he took photos to record the demolition work, but that the apparent ghost of a boy in a flat cap in one image made "the hairs on the back of [his] neck stick up". He said: "I didn't believe in ghosts, but since I got this picture, I am not so sure."

Fores has clearly been deceptive here: The Mail says that he insists he has not edited the photo, which means they asked him and he denied it. The Sun's picture of him on the building site with his mobile phone shows him with a beaten up old camera phone, and not the iPhone he used to create the image. Derren Brown would be proud of such an artful misdirection.

But surely the press should use more common sense than that? Just because a member of the public says they have a picture of a ghost, that doesn't mean it's true. Even if the story were included as a bit of fluff, its tone could be different. The Sun opens with "A builder demolishing an old school discovered this eerie image of a young boy in a mobile phone picture taken of the site", which effectively endorses the builder's story. The Daily Mail said: "The ghostly image of a young boy was captured on camera as builders demolished an old school building. John Fores, 47, insists the spectral figure was not present when he took the picture..." To use the picture as some light entertainment and keep their credibility, the papers could have taken a more sceptical angle, or even softened their reporting by saying the photographer claims he took the photo normally, rather than just reporting that he did. (There's a guide to handling of uncorroborated statements in the context of press releases, here).

One reason this reflects badly on the newspapers is that many of their readers know exactly how the pictures were taken. Although a lot of people immediately suspected Photoshop had been used, it took just three hours for someone to comment on the Daily Mail that the shot was created using an iPhone app. That app is called Ghost Capture, which costs 59p and enables you to add ghosts to your pictures. It can also be used on the iPod Touch to edit photos loaded on the device. I used the free lite version to make the picture above.

At the time of writing, neither newspaper has corrected their story to make clear that it's fake, which sends a strong signal that they don't care about accuracy or truth. Next time you read a story in those papers, ask yourself whether you are being lied to.

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