NYT publish manipulated footage of a Bitcoin mine?

This is an opinion editorial by Level39, a researcher focused on Bitcoin, technology, history, ethics, and energy.

The New York Times published an article on April 9, 2023, called “The Real-World Costs Of The Digital Race For Bitcoin,” which attacked Bitcoin miners. The article included footage from an aerial drone that showed smog-filled air over operations run by Bitdeer, a Bitcoin mining company that occupies an abandoned aluminum smelting plant on the outskirts of Rockdale, Texas. However, there is evidence to suggest that the footage was either manipulated or lacked the necessary color grading that would maintain photojournalistic integrity and adhere to ethical standards.

Color histograms are useful for analyzing the exposure and color balance of an image. When color data fails to span the entire x-axis, it can show that either those tones were entirely unavailable to the camera sensor or that manipulation was performed to purposefully omit those colors. The color histogram in the aerial footage published by the Times has no pixels approaching the black point, which is particularly strange for footage that has bright sun and stark shadows that are clearly visible as the camera moves over the scene. When color parameters are enhanced and corrected, a brighter and more stunning scene emerges.

The hazy footage used by the Times may give readers a false impression that rural Texas air has been polluted by Bitcoin mining. But Bitcoin mines are fully electrified and have zero Scope 1 carbon emissions. Any indirect Scope 2 emissions associated from mining’s energy use comes from the grid’s normal emissions.

Jordan Vonderhaar, the freelance photographer who took the aerial footage in question, published another photo from the same drone flight on his personal website, showing that the weather was perfectly clear within moments of the hazy photo published by the Times. This clear photo, from a different angle, indicates that the missing color data in the hazy photo was not due to weather conditions. Vonderhaar’s photo included full Exif metadata that shows details about the imaging, such as the fact that it was taken on the morning of February 28, 2023, at 8:02 a.m. in raw format, with a DJI FC220, the camera supplied by the DJI Mavic Pro drone.

An analysis of the shadows in the photo confirms that the footage was taken only nine minutes after the photo that showed clear and smog-free air surrounding the mine. However, the video footage lacks the golden hues and blue skies that were present in the photo. Vonderhaar, who described miners as “massive polluters,” responded to allegations of manipulation stating that “Nothing about the footage was doctored. It’s humid most mornings in Texas and when the sun rises you get low level haze. This is very common.”

The nearest automated weather observation station reported low-level fog at that same moment. VFX artist Rory Highside noticed problems with the footage that the Times had used, suspecting that either the color grading was mishandled or the color balance had been manipulated. The raw footage captured by digital cameras retains maximum image information and flexibility during post-processing, but requires processing and interpolation to produce an accurate final image. The photographer must adjust various parameters, such as contrast, white balance, exposure, and color saturation, meaning the photographer always has some artistic leeway in the final product.

The FC220 camera is capable of capturing video footage in a logarithmic (log) color profile. Raw log footage is a flat and low-contrast format that preserves a wide dynamic range of details, which allows for greater flexibility during post-processing. Log video footage always appears hazy when its raw, unedited format isn’t properly color graded.

Color grading or color correction is typically performed to convert log footage to an accurate color profile. This involves adjusting the image’s color and tonal properties to achieve a more visually pleasing and accurate representation of the scene. The proper conversion from log involves mapping the tonal values in the log footage to their corresponding values, such as with lookup tables, or LUTS, to color grade the final footage.

Vonderhaar may have been telling the truth when he claimed that “Nothing about the footage was doctored.” However, publishing unedited log footage without proper color grading would quite literally result in a misleading smog effect, without having to do anything. Doing this deliberately would be unethical if it intentionally misleads viewers into seeing smog that did not exist.

Photojournalists have a duty to maintain journalistic integrity and adhere to ethical standards to truthfully convey the events they witnessed. While there is no definitive “correct” color to any image, intentionally misleading readers by failing to color grade log footage is a breach of ethical standards. Photojournalists must depict the scene as faithfully as possible, avoiding anything that might distort reality. Publishing raw and uncorrected video footage, which actively removes colors from a scene and creates a misleading smog effect, is effectively a passive form of photographic manipulation. If not manipulation, then it is an egregious example of Hanlon’s razor.

It should be noted that Vonderhaar’s lack of color grading may not be due to malice or even artistic bias. While a professional photographer who has expertise in color correcting raw still images to JPEG may possess a solid foundation in color correction and a good understanding of color theory, it does not automatically mean they have the necessary skills to color grade log video footage. Color grading log video involves a different set of skills and considerations compared to color correcting raw still images. Expertise in video editing software and a specific understanding of the technical aspects of working with video formats — such as frame rates, codecs and color spaces — is a requirement to adeptly work with log footage. Managing temporal continuity and ensuring consistent color grading is critical to maintaining visual coherence. It’s entirely plausible that Vonderhaar was simply unable to color grade log video. But, whether it be malice or inability, the Times should issue a correction.

The Signature Style Of The Times

The Times has a signature style for its photographs, where it typically extends the white point to darken images when it wants to portray a somber or moody tone. However, an extended black point — resulting in washed out colors — is the direct opposite of this iconic style.

The Ethics Of Photo Manipulation

All photography requires some form of color correction. Minor stylistic choices aside, adjustments that actively mislead readers are unethical. A 2015 article in the Times about a World Press Photo research project, for instance, explained that photo editors cross an ethical line, which becomes explicit manipulation, when their processing obscures an image to create conditions that were not actually in the scene:

“The only point at which processing becomes manipulation is when the toning is so great — usually by transforming significant parts of an image to opaque black or white — that it obscures substantial detail.”

–”Debating The Rules And Ethics Of Digital Photojournalism,” The New York Times

According to Highside, the extent of the manipulation and our ability to restore the full color potential will remain unknown unless Vonderhaar releases his original raw footage. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) recommends in its code of ethics that journalists need to be proactive about addressing concerns and allegations of improper conduct:

“Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public. Journalists should: Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content. Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness. Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly. Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations. Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.”

–SPJ code of ethics

Despite the missing color data, which can only be sourced from Vonderhaar’s unreleased raw footage, Highside was able to partially restore the washed out footage to demonstrate what the imaging could have looked like if a proper color grading had been applied. The results are striking when compared alongside the video that was published by the Times:

Intentionally choosing not to color grade or fully correct log footage is a violation of ethical standards in photojournalism. Even if it was due to a lack of ability, it can still be considered a breach of ethical standards, especially if the Times fails to correct the misinformation or take appropriate action to rectify the situation. A fundamental principle of photojournalism is to provide an accurate and truthful representation of events. Misrepresenting the visual aspects of a scene goes against this principle and compromises the integrity of the profession. It undermines the credibility of photojournalists and the publication, damages the reputation of the profession, and erodes public trust in the media.

It should not be overlooked that the Times article contained significant misinformation. Why the Times is seemingly motivated to deliberately portray Bitcoin mining in such a negative light is unclear. However, it appears to fit a long pattern of distortions and bias from the newspaper, which has become more evident to readers in recent years. When photojournalists mislead the public into believing a small and rural Texas town has thick smog typically found in populated and polluted cities, it is necessary and appropriate to question the paper’s ethical choices.

Vonderhaar could clear up suspicions over his work by releasing the original raw log footage. This would allow members of the public to properly assess the color grading of the footage and reveal the true details that were present. If indeed the log footage was intentionally left in a low contrast state, it would be an embarrassment for the Times.

This is a guest post by Level39. The opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.

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