They say the retraction never gets as much attention as the original mistake did. That’s doubly true when the picture in question went viral and the correction came months later.
You perhaps remember the photo of an emaciated polar bear that appeared in National Geographic last December. It was captured by photographers Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen on the Baffin Islands in Canada.
This is what you probably saw last winter:
The original article describes, in horrifying fashion, “the polar bear clinging to life, its white hair limply covering its thin, bony frame. One of the bear’s back legs drags behind it as it walks, likely due to muscle atrophy. Looking for food, the polar bear slowly rummages through a nearby trashcan used seasonally by Inuit fishers. It finds nothing and resignedly collapses back down onto the ground.”
“We stood there crying — filming with tears rolling down our cheeks,” Nicklen said.
However, in an article for the August 2018 issue of National Geographic titled “Starving-Polar-Bear Photographer Recalls What Went Wrong,” Mittermeier says that the narrative that grew up around the photograph — in particular its relation to climate change — was inaccurate.
“Photographer Paul Nicklen and I are on a mission to capture images that communicate the urgency of climate change. Documenting its effects on wildlife hasn’t been easy. With this image, we thought we had found a way to help people imagine what the future of climate change might look like. We were, perhaps, naive. The picture went viral — and people took it literally,” Mittermeier wrote.
“Paul spotted the polar bear a year ago on a scouting trip to an isolated cove on Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic. He immediately asked me to assemble our SeaLegacy SeaSwat team. SeaLegacy, the organization we founded in 2014, uses photography to spread the message of ocean conservation; the SeaSwat team is a deployable unit of storytellers who cover urgent issues. The day after his call our team flew to an Inuit village on Resolute Bay. There was no certainty that we would find the bear again or that it would still be alive.”