Editor’s Note: This article is an updated version of the original from 22 June 2018, which has been rewritten to better frame the issue, provide additional detail, and correct errors, omissions, or ambiguities in the previous version.
In June 2018, as the controversy surrounding the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that led to more than 2,000 undocumented migrant children being separated from their parents grew to a fever pitch, a photograph of a sobbing, 2-year-old Honduran refugee came to stand, in the minds of many, for everything that was wrong with that policy.
In the minds of others, however, it came to represent bias and dishonesty in the media, for although it wasn’t clear at the outset whether the girl had actually been separated from her mother (it was eventually determined that she was not), the image was widely used to illustrate press coverage of the policy and dominated the news cycle for days.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders condemned the image’s use in a 22 June tweet:
It’s shameful that dems and the media exploited this photo of a little girl to push their agenda. She was not separated from her mom. The separation here is from the facts. Dems should join POTUS and fix our broken immigration system. #ChangetheLawshttps://t.co/Y6KrTp4Ulk
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) June 22, 2018
The Daily Wire, among other pro-Trump web sites, objected that media organizations who published the image were attempting to score political points under false pretenses:
[T]he media and the Democrats used the photo to try to portray the Trump administration as being heartless toward immigrants, specifically young children. Various individuals on the political Left then used the photo to score political points, either suggesting or stating as fact that she had been separated from her family.
And even the mainstream Washington Post ran an opinion piece critical of what the author termed the “misleading” use of the image:
The implication was clear: This was a girl who, like 2,500 other children, was being separated from her mother. Time and many others made a decision to suggest that this was an example of Trump uprooting our American ideals.
But that’s not what it was. As The Washington Post‘s Samantha Schmidt and Kristine Phillips report, the girl’s father says the child and her mother were never separated. U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed it, as did the Honduran deputy foreign minister.
But while the implication that the child was separated from a parent was widespread, to call it misleading is to suggest that the outlets who ran the image knew all along that no such separation took place. Moreover, whether the girl was ultimately taken from her mother or not, the photograph documents a real instance of the enforcement of the zero-tolerance policy that could have led to separation. And although it was contextualized in terms of family separation from its earliest public iteration, the number of times news media organizations explicitly claimed that the photograph depicted a child being taken from her parent can be counted on one hand.
The picture was snapped on 12 June 2018 by Getty Images photographer John Moore near McAllen, Texas, during a ride-along with Border Patrol agents as they took asylum seekers from Central America into custody. Moore posted the picture the next day on his personal Instagram page with commentary noting that the administration’s zero-tolerance policy meant that children would be separated from their parents in detention:
A Honduran asylum seeker, 2, and her mother are taken into custody by federal agents near the US-Mexico border. They had just crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico and were to be transported to a US Customs and Border Protection processing center. The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy for undocumented immigrants calls for the separation of parents and children while their cases for political asylum are adjudicated, a process that can take months – or years. As a father myself, this photograph was especially difficult for me to take. It is one from a series i took while on a ride-along with the Border Patrol in Texas’ Río Grande Valley. #gettyimages #undocumented #gettyimagesnews
The image went mainstream two days later (on 14 June) atop a GettyImages.com feature highlighting Moore’s photographs of what was termed “soon-to-be-separated migrant families” under the title “When the Government Takes Your Children.” The text didn’t indicate what ultimately happened to the girl and her mother, although Moore was quoted as saying he last saw them entering a transport van together. (The headline of the article was subsequently changed to “The Face of Zero Tolerance,” and the phrase “soon-to-be-separated” was deleted. An editor’s note said the article was updated “to reflect new information regarding the government’s policy as well as the families in these photos.”)
The image began turning up in national and regional news publications that same day. Among the first to use the image was the Houston Chronicle, which ran it in a 14 June story about immigrant detention centers above a boilerplate caption (presumably supplied by Getty) that would accompany the photograph in dozens more venues in the several days that followed, including the Baltimore Sun, Newsday, New York magazine, BuzzFeed News, and the web site of National Public Radio.
The caption did not say that mother and daughter had been separated, but rather that they faced “possible separation” at a U.S. Border Patrol processing center:
A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation.
Other venues, while they did use the photograph to illustrate articles about family separation, made no specific claims about what it did or did not depict (these included the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, ABC News, the Daily Beast, and Vanity Fair).
Still other outlets went the opposite way, stating more than they knew. On 18 June, in a Business Insider article quoting John Moore on his feelings about taking the photograph, the author described it as depicting “an asylum-seeking young girl crying at a detention center as Border Patrol agents questioned her mother before separating them.”
On 19 June, the New York Daily News featured the image in an article headlined “Photographer Describes Harrowing New Images Showing 2-Year-Old Girl Bawling as She’s Separated from Mother at U.S. Border.”
And, on 21 June, in a story recounting the genesis of what was undoubtedly the most controversial use of Moore’s photograph — a TIME magazine cover juxtaposing the image of the diminutive migrant girl with that of a towering Donald Trump — the Washington Post described the subject matter of the original as “a young girl crying as her mother was patted down by a Border Patrol agent before the two were separated.”
Compounding the Post‘s error was the fact that the Daily Mail Online (which itself had previously run a story describing the photograph as showing a “crying two-year-old asylum seeker being separated from her mom”) published an interview with the girl’s father that same day in which he denied that the mother and daughter were ever separated. Reuters followed up with their own interview with the father, Denis Valera, who said, again, that the two had been detained together, not separately. Honduras deputy foreign minister Nelly Jerez confirmed Valera’s claims.
The Post corrected their article as follows:
Clarification: The initial version of this story said the child depicted on Time’s cover had been separated from her mother, based on the magazine’s account. As The Washington Post and others have since reported, the child was not separated from her mother during their encounter with a Border Patrol agent. The story has been updated.
The TIME article referenced in the correction was published on 19 June. The magazine had issued a correction as well:
Correction (Posted June 19): The original version of this story misstated what happened to the girl in the photo after she was taken from the scene. The girl was not carried away screaming by U.S. Border Patrol agents; her mother picked her up and the two were taken away together.
By the time the truth about the image was sorted out, President Trump had signed an executive order calling a halt to family separations (though not to the underlying zero-tolerance policy that led to the separations). In addition to covering Trump’s order and its implications for immigrant families, many of the news organizations that had previously run the photograph published reports setting the record straight about its content.
It would be difficult to make the case that John Moore’s gripping image did not play a crucial role in causing a reversal of the family separation policy. But it’s just as difficult to make the case that its emotional impact derived from a misrepresentation of its content. As TIME‘s editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, told CNN, “None of us in the media who used the photo knew what had happened to the girl after this precise moment. And I actually think part of the power of the image is that unknown.”
In an official statement, Felsenthal added:
The June 12 photograph of the 2-year-old Honduran girl became the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate in America for a reason: Under the policy enforced by the administration, prior to its reversal this week, those who crossed the border illegally were criminally prosecuted, which in turn resulted in the separation of children and parents. Our cover and our reporting capture the stakes of this moment.