How Fake Information Starts and Spreads – the Amelia Earhart Photo

If you haven’t seen it online already, or watched the documentary on the History channel, this was what we were being told about this photograph.

Producers with a History Channel documentary recently found the picture in the National Archives and promoted it as new evidence indicating Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, survived a plane crash after they disappeared on July 2, 1937. The photo, they alleged, proved a long-held theory that the duo wrecked their aircraft and were subsequently captured by the Japanese.

I saw the photo online and then watched the documentary, mostly because the photo didn’t prove anything to me, so I was hoping for more information.

Only there wasn’t any. Yes, there was other evidence provided and some eyewitness accounts handed down through generations of a Caucasian woman on the island. There was historical information about what other groups had looked for previously, and even a new dig in a cemetery that turned up well, not a whole lot other than to show that the place where they heard she was buried did exist, but there were no bones or anything. But, as far as the photo went, we were mostly told that it was definitely from 1937, it seemed to show, again, a Caucasian woman, but that was really about it. The producers seemed to have gone looking for proof of their theory, stumbled across a photo that could, really, have been of anyone, and assumed it was Earhart.

Except, apparently, it couldn’t have been:

However, on Tuesday, a blogger The Guardian identified as military history buff Kota Yamano published a post showing the image in question in a book from 1935—two years before Earhart even left on her trip.


“I have never believed the theory that Earhart was captured by the Japanese military, so I decided to find out for myself,” Yamano told The Guardian of his search for the picture. “The photo was the 10th item that came up.”

I’m no military history buff, nor am I familiar with researching Japanese archives, but I’ve done enough research to know that if it was the 10th thing that came up in the search, it wasn’t that hard to locate. The producers just didn’t want to. They found something that fit the story they wanted to tell, and ran with it.

Unfortunately, this is all too common in today’s fast paced news world. Instead of starting from “neutral”, and thoroughly researching every possibility, too many outlets start from a theory, and seek to prove it. That’s how bias happens. We’re human. We will almost always choose to read into things with our bias. So when we are biased to think Amelia Earhart was captured by the Japanese, we see a photo of someone that kinda sorta looks like her from behind, and present it as an almost-fact. As in a, we won’t say it is her, but it couldn’t be anyone else, kind of way. We’ll also have a tendency to ignore any information that contradicts our theory, because we want to explain everything in a way that fits our story. It’s natural, it’s the way we are hard-wired. (Note, as an example, the number of online comments denigrating the guy who did the research for possibly lying about it. That’s an instructive reaction.) And it is why starting from a narrative is so dangerous. Had the producers of the documentary done some research from the assumption that nothing is proved and we have to vet every single new piece of information before deciding what the story is, they may have found this earlier copy of the photo and been saved this embarrassment.

Alas, they did not, and there’s a lesson there for all of us, whether we are making a documentary, or simply sharing stories on social media.

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