Public Eye

IMINT Notes

"They who have put out the people's eyes, reproach them of their blindness."
John Milton, 1642.

23 April 2004

It was bound to happen - Wrong satellite images used to depict North Korean Blast

On April 22, 2004, a train crash/collision resulted in massive explosion in the town of Ryongchon in North Korea. With existing restrictions on the "hermit kingdom", the use of satellite imagery became an obvious way to get a look at the accident site. Unfortunately, a number of glaring mistakes were made in the process.

One case was that of Britain's Independent Television News which aired a satellite image purportedly taken of the blast in the North Korean town of Ryongchon. The only problem was the image was actually taken over a year earlier during military operations in Iraq by the Digitalglobe Quickbird satellite. The image was taken on 9 April 2003 and was displayed on our website as an April 2003 picture of the week. That image shows an explosion captured by satellite as it is happening in a Baghdadi neighborhood, probably from Coalition Air strikes. MSNBC also had the image on its website and repeated the claim though with caution. The probability that one of the half dozen commercial imaging satellites would just happen to be have its camera pointed right at the area of the blast in North Korea at the exact time it was taking place and with no forewarning is too small to calculate.

The BBC News website also featured at one point the Baghdad image. It has since been removed (except for the one example we managed to capture below), after BBC was notified of the error, thanks to Jeff S., a GlobalSecurity.org frequent visitor who quickly spotted the resemblance with the Baghdad image. According to BBC, "We used it after it was forwarded to us as a raw image by a usually reliable security source. In this case, it seems some error has been made. We are still trying to ascertain how this happened." Once it got into circulation it was picked up in the United States by NBC and MSNBC, and used in at least two South Korean news papers. According to a report by the Yonhap News Agency, the BBC obtained the wrong image from the British Government Communications Headquarters(GCHQ).

CBSNews.com, also used the BBC's annotated image supplied by the AP and, displayed on its website imagery of Ryongchon claiming to having been taken hours after the blast and to show smoke caused by the explosion. What the image in fact shows is the town of Ryonchon which, in a black and white image, stands out against the background scenery.

A image posted on the Australian Herald Sun website, appears to mistake a dark area present in DigitalGlobe imagery for the area where a blaze caused by the explosion would have occured.

How did this happen? With a few exceptions, Broadcast and Cable news organizations have used commercial satellite mostly as "eye candy" or "video B-roll" with little regard for quality control. Years ago one television producer claimed that "commercial satellite imagery would revolutionize News." Clearly the revolution has yet to materialize.

Commercial satellite imagery has much potential as a truly unique news source if its use is driven by the editorial department, and not the graphics department. Although several US News organizations spent an unprecedented amount of money buying and using high resolution satellite imagery during the Iraq war, none have made anything like a long term commitment to incorporate this product into the way they operate. Every major US National broadcast and cable news organization spends a great deal of time and money reporting on and tracking the weather, with in-house meteorologists, sophisticated computers to display weather data, real time Doppler radar to predict weather events, and most important a dedicated budget and long term investment to cover the weather. This is matched by out-sourced contracts to specialized value-added companies to support this coverage. Not one has an in-house satellite imagery analysis shop, and no one has sustained the out-sourced contractor support that was temporarily created during Major Combat Operations in early 2003. In most news organizations no one wants to pay for satellite imagery. "Is it a graphics or a special events budget item?" In most cases neither.

Part of the problem is that news organizations are accustomed to budgeting for pictures that need no explanation beyond the caption provided by the wire service, and which require no further interpretation. Satellite imagery requires explanation and interpretation, and someone somewhere has to pay for this service. Right now, this isn't happening, so satellite imagery isn't getting used as much as it could or should, and when it does get used, too frequently it gets mis-used.

Until news organizations make high-resolution satellite imagery an editorial priority, and use imagery to support newsgathering, silly mistakes like these will continue.

Coverage of the North Korean Blast
Click on an image for more detail
FUBAR #1 - Baghdad Explosion

DigitalGlobe Image - Baghdad 9 April 2003
See this Picture of the Week 2003

BBC children news website
The location of Ryongchon is also misidentified

MSNBC website

Today Show (8-9am) on NBC National
23 April 2004

Dong-a Ilbo

Chosun-Ilbo

Repubblica.it
FUBAR #2 - Town as smoke cloud

Imagery of Ryongchon
The image above is actually Ikonos Browse imagery of the town of Ryonchon. What has been mistaken for smoke is actually the town.

CBS website
FUBAR #3 - Dark Patch as Explosion

Imagery of Ryongchon
The image above is an overview of the probable area of the blast, near the train station.

The caption for the image on this webpage of the Australian Herald Sun website appears to mistake a darker area of the satellite image near the railroad tracks for the actual blaze caused by the explosion




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