Fact check: CNN did not lighten image of alleged Seattle shooter

The claim: CNN lightened a photo of a man accused of shooting a protester in Seattle

More than a year after Nikolas Fernandez was charged with first-degree assault and firearms enhancement in connection to a shooting at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Seattle, social media users are resurrecting false claims about how news outlets covered the story.

On June 7, 2020, Fernandez allegedly drove his vehicle into a crowd of protesters in Seattle and shot a demonstrator. In the days following the incident, social media users shared an image that claimed CNN had aired an altered image of Fernandez to make him appear light-skinned.

Fact-checkersdebunked the image last summer, but it has recently resurfaced on Instagram. 

“CNN GOT CAUGHT! They lightened the photo of the man that drove into protestors in Seattle to make him appear white,” says text in a June 21 Instagram post, which purportedly shows a photo of Fernandez. “When will you guys realize it’s us vs the media. They want a race war!”

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CNN has repeatedly said it did not alter or air the image. The outdated logo on the photo indicates it does not come from an authentic CNN report.  

USA TODAY reached out to several Instagram users for comment. 

CNN didn’t lighten photo

Seattle Times photographer Dean Rutz took the original photo June 7, 2020. CNN told PolitiFact and Check Your Fact, two independent fact-checking organizations, that it did not air the image — altered or otherwise.

A man holds what appears to be a firearm after having driven at George Floyd protesters Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Seattle. (Photo: Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times via AP)

Matt Dornic, head of strategic communications for CNN Worldwide, confirmed in a June 21 email to USA TODAY that the claim was false. 

“CNN absolutely did not alter the skin tone of the man in the photograph. It’s a phony screengrab being pushed by bad actors to drive division and outrage,” Dornic wrote.

USA TODAY, PolitiFact and Check Your Fact did not find the photo of Fernandez in any of CNN’s reporting from the week after the shooting. 

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When USA TODAY searched CNN’s archives for Fernandez’s name, the only relevant result was a different June 7, 2020, photo that CNN published as part of a photo gallery of news events from that week. 

CNN logo in photo does not match style

The graphic that appears in the photos shared on Instagram does not match the graphic style CNN was using at the time.

The logo in the altered photo shows “CNN” in white on top of a red square. However, broadcasts from June 2020 show CNN was using a logo with red lettering and a white background.

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Otherreports from that time used red letters with a transparent background. USA TODAY could not find any reporting from June 2020 that used the logo seen in the lightened image. 

USA TODAY has previously fact-checked social media posts that falsely claimed CNN produced controversial headlines and graphics.

Our rating: False

The claim that CNN lightened a photo of a Seattle man accused of shooting a protester is FALSE, based on our research. CNN spokespeople have repeatedly said the outlet did not air the image shared on social media. USA TODAY and other fact-checkers could find no record of CNN airing the image. The logo on the image does not match CNN’s style.

Our fact-check sources:

  • The Seattle Times, June 10, 2020, Prosecutors say man who shot protester on Capitol Hill likely provoked the incident
  • PolitiFact, June 17, 2020, CNN did not lighten a photo of the man accused of driving into Seattle protesters
  • Check Your Fact, June 19, 2020, FACT CHECK: VIRAL IMAGE CLAIMS CNN ‘LIGHTENED’ A PHOTO OF THE MAN WHO DROVE THROUGH SEATTLE PROTESTERS
  • The Seattle Times, June 7, 2020, Man shot on Capitol Hill in Seattle after gunman drives car into George Floyd protest
  • Matt Dornic, June 21, Email exchange with USA TODAY
  • CNN, June 8, 2020, A person was shot after a man drove a vehicle into protesters, Seattle police say
  • CNN.com, accessed June 22
  • CNN, June 11, 2020, The week in 41 photos
  • AdAge, Oct. 30, 2011, LATEST TACTIC TO TAKE OVER TV: THE ‘BUG’
  • CNN on YouTube, June 1, 2020, Anderson Cooper calls out Trump: ‘Who’s the thug here?’
  • CNN on YouTube, June 1, 2020, Lemon on Trump photo-op: When was last time he saw a church?
  • CNN on YouTube, June 12, 2020, Seattle mayor fires back after Trump threatens to intervene
  • CNN on YouTube, May 28, 2020, Violence unfolds during protests over George Floyd’s death
  • CNN on YouTube, June 16, 2020, What Antifa members are doing during protests

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