A sharp-eyed Reddit user was reading a CNN article about the White House response to Russian cyberattacks when he or she spotted something strange in the video playing at the top: As B-roll, the network was using a screenshot of a minigame from the post-apocalyptic role-playing game Fallout 4. (To be more specific, it was a hacking minigame included in Fallout 4.)
After the post on Reddit, the gaming press quickly piled on. A new video now leads the CNN story, but the clip that appears to show Fallout 4 graphics can still be found elsewhere on the site. (CNN didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about why and/or how shots from the game ended up in the video.)
It’s pretty easy to dismiss the whole thing as a clueless media blunder, just another sign that journalists don’t understand cybersecurity much more than Trump does—or can’t tell fiction from reality.
But everyone should cut CNN a little slack.
I’m a tech writer, and I cover privacy and security. And I’ve learned something over the years: Finding a good image for hacking stories can make you want to pull your hair out. If you’re covering a data breach at a specific company or government agency, you can usually get away with an image of a sign out front of their headquarters. But for more general cybersecurity pieces, you’re usually picking from a limited selection of stock images.
And the choices can be pretty bleak. Think generic keyboard shots, The Matrix–style streaming binary text, and Hollywood stereotypes of someone wearing a hoodie or ski mask typing at a laptop—typically illuminated by light shining from the screen.
In the rush to get stories online, it’s easy to default to the same picture time and time again once you find one that works. That’s why you’ve probably seen the same image of a glowing, binary-spewing keyboard in dozens of stories—including some of my own—if you follow digital security news.
Technical topics like encryption or specific strains of malware are hard to translate into imagery. And when you can illustrate the technology, well, it isn’t very eye-catching.
“To be honest, a photo of some real hacking would be just too boring,” one illustrator who makes stock hacking illustration told Motherboard last year. “That’s why you usually create an attractive, exaggerated image—like in cinema,” said the artist, who goes by the handle “Welcomia” on image marketplace Shutterstock. The pseudonymous illustrator also acknowledged knowing “nothing about hacking.”
The kind of images Welcomia makes drives some cybersecurity experts crazy. They think that the graphics perpetuate stereotypes of the creepy loner at a computer—and the images definitely include more men than women. A few years ago, a San Francisco tech collective called the Hacker Dojo even took its own over-the-top “hacker” pictures and posted them on public Flickr accounts as a prank, to see whether news sites would use them in stories. (They did.)
But broadcast outlets like CNN have it even harder than print media because they have to find engaging visuals for an entire video segment instead of just an image to top a story.
Of course, a lack of good images isn’t necessarily a good excuse for using video game graphics to get cybersecurity issues across in a serious news story. But it perhaps makes it easier to forgive.