Jumping to Conclusions (or, “The high cost of screwing up esoteric aspects of video editing”)

While waiting for today’s ComicBase update to finish posting, I was killing time reading various news feeds when I saw a strange news story developing right before my eyes. The thing was, from the moment I saw it, I suspected the whole thing was more a “bug” than an act of malice—because the same thing happened to me years ago when editing videos with comic creators for ComicBase.

The “scandal” is uniquely bipartisan. Over at Media Matters a left-leaning “media watchdog” web site, they’ve kicked off a firestorm with allegations that Fox News had maliciously altered  the pictures of a couple of New York Times reporters. Little Green Footballs, a conservative blog then picked it up and also lamented Fox’s dirty trick.

Photo 1

…except that it doesn’t look like a dirty trick at all. It looks like a DV/JPEG conversion issue.

Basically: Digital video pixels are not square: they’re the incredibly odd shape of 0.9 pixels wide for every pixel in height. So, when you mix them with “square pixel” source like photographs, you need to have your video editing suite set to squoosh or stretch accordingly.

Ironically, Little Green Footballs, which gave us the GIF proving so vividly that the George Bush “draft dodging” letters were forged in Microsoft Word, didn’t notice the problem. If they had taken the original image, scaled the width by exactly 10% and overlaid it on the “altered” images, they’d see they were a pixel-for-pixel match.

Admittedly, there’s also a bit of a color cast to the whole image (yellow is accentuated in the whole image—note the shirts), and ironically, it looks like in one image someone did carelessly use the “healing” brush in Photoshop to try to clear up some blotching in a reporter’s complexion at the cost of a wisp of hair. The somewhat higher black levels on the video image also accentuated the shadows under the reporter’s eyes. The real damage, however, appears to have been caused by simply loading in the stills in the wrong pixel aspect ratio.

Photo 2

I saw the story developing in real time as I waited at my desk for the weekly update to finish, and recognized it as the same sort of rookie mistake I’d made years ago as a young video editor. I verified it in Photoshop and tried to let LGF know that there was likely less to the story than appeared, but the web was already in full uproar. Unfortunately, LGF had their registration closed down for the weekend and Media Matters (me being new as a commenter to both systems) still holds my comment for moderation—probably on Monday. In the meantime, thousands upon thousands of words have been written on the story. It really does seem like one of  those lies that is travelling halfway around the world before the truth (or at least the unsatisfyingly geeky explanation) gets its boots on.


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