No matter the medium, every news organization in America is trying now to figure out how to survive and thrive in the online world.

In NPR's case, the network is learning how to transfer what it does well -- radio storytelling -- to the visual medium of the web. This means that NPR staffers who write gripping radio scripts must now write newspaper-style for the web, which is a very different skill. It also means people who capture sound must also shoot video or take photographs to illustrate a story.

It's an exciting time of experimentation, but there can be public missteps. NPR's online version of an All Things Considered (ATC) report about low-income Americans and the economic downturn drew ridicule from the blogosphere for using an unflattering photo of two women in the story and an insensitive headline.

The July 17 ATC story looked at the economy in Ohio, a political swing state, and centered on one family to illustrate a study, co-sponsored by NPR, which reported that low-income Ohio residents are having a particularly tough time making ends meet.

The segment reported that Gloria Nunez and her daughter, Angelica Hernandez, 19, live in low-rent subsidized housing in Fostoria, a small town in northern Ohio, surviving on a monthly $637 check from Social Security and $102 in food stamps. According to the story, Nunez has never worked and her daughter has been unable to get any transportation to a job since the family van broke down last fall.

This is how the story ended: "The rising cost of food means their money gets them about a third fewer bags of groceries....So they cut back on expensive items like meat, and they don't buy extras like ice cream anymore. Instead, they eat a lot of starches like potatoes and noodles."

When posted on the NPR web site, the story was headlined: "For Some Ohioans, Even Meat is Out Of Reach." Under the headline was a photograph, taken by producer Katia Dunn, showing a close-up of Nunez and her daughter, both of whom are overweight by American standards.

The headline and photo distracted from the intended focus of the story, which was the Nunez family's struggle to survive in a down economy.

Soon after the story appeared, the "trolls" in the blogosphere went on the attack. I won't dignify their comments by repeating them. But they overwhelmingly exhibited an appalling lack of empathy as well as ignorance of the fact that many low-income people are overweight precisely because they can't afford to buy healthy food.

The Ombudsman's office got over a dozen emails, most cruel. Only Jim Tung criticized NPR and not the women.

"ATC's recent story about Ohioans negatively affected by the economy was marred by the accompanying picture on the web version," wrote Tung. "A simple Google search will reveal large amounts of ridicule heaped on the Nunez family. NPR editors should have recognized this potential problem and acted accordingly."

NPR has a photo editor for its web site: Coburn Dukehart, who previously was an editor at USA Today.com and Washington Post.com. When I asked her about this photo, she responded in an e-mail:
"I am well aware of this story. And I don't actually think it's either a problem with the photo, or with the headline on their own, but a problem with the implicit statement they make when they are paired together. As a rule we do not publish every photo that a reporter takes just because they took it -- but include it only if it helps illustrate the story in a logical, editorial manner. In this case, in the way it was framed, I'm not sure this photo serves that purpose."

I also asked Kenny Irby, visual journalism group leader at the Poynter Institute, a media think tank, to look at the photo and online story.

"One of the things you have to think about any time you are dealing with issues of food and folks who are obese is how the photos are presented," said Irby. "As a photojournalist, this portrait is not a good source of documentary journalism. It's static. It draws attention to their size and not to their plight, which is what the story is about."

"NPR shouldn't be surprised there are some people who would respond to this photo in adverse ways," he continued. "There is an immediate rush to judgment because there is a hypersensitivity to issues of size, body mass and obesity in our society."

Dukehart said NPR journalists had given thought to how to authentically capture the people mentioned in the story. "The photo itself is an accurate representation of what these two women look like," she emailed. "They knew they were being photographed and interviewed for an NPR story. While the technical quality of the photo itself isn't fantastic, it's fairly typical of the style of photo shot by reporters that we often run on NPR."

That may be true, but journalists also have a duty to be careful in their treatment of their subjects -- especially those who are unaccustomed to dealing with the media.

NPR's ethics code says its coverage must be fair, unbiased, accurate, complete and honest. It adds, "We must treat the people we cover and our audience with respect." A basic tenet of any ethics code is to seek truth and minimize harm. In this case, NPR caused harm -- though not intentionally -- to the women by not using a more sensitive photo.

"Two people standing side by side is not representative of the kind of journalism that one expects from NPR," said Irby. "There is likely a lack of sophistication among the producers and editors involved in visual decisions."

Irby isn't quite correct about the last point. NPR has hired some very talented and experienced visual media journalists for its Digital Media division. But in this case, a radio producer shot the photo -- not a professional photographer.

Irby said it would have been better had NPR photographed the women in an active posture where they were doing something. He added that a skilled photojournalist would know the strategies to photograph large people in a sensitive way.

"This is a lesson that NPR can learn from," said Irby. "NPR can affirm the need for a thoughtful, vetting process. NPR needs to ask itself how it implements guidelines in the future to prevent this from happening again."

The impact of the photo was even greater because of the headline about the Nunez family's inability to afford meat. One week after the story appeared, NPR substituted a more neutral headline: "Struggling In Ohio As The Economy Tightens."

Dick Meyer, the editorial director for NPR's Digital Media, emailed that "if a change is the right thing to do, better late than never."

Keith Jenkins, supervising senior producer for multimedia, said the photo and headline were not a good pairing. Jenkins, recently hired from The Washington Post, said his department intends to create guidelines on the use of photos and videos to "help our web producers spot some of these issues sooner and have a process for resolving them quickly."

Maria Godoy, the Digital Media editor who reviewed the story before it went online, has given the Nunez story a lot of thought. "In retrospect, I think the [first] headline on the story was appropriate," she said. "I think the photo and the lead were also fine. What I missed was how they all fit together and might be interpreted. And I will certainly be more vigilant about that in the future."

During its period of moving into new forms of media, NPR undoubtedly will make more mistakes -- but also will improve its use of the web as an important tool to reach and inform its audience. It's unfortunate the Nunez family got caught in NPR's learning curve.

categories: Ethics

1:44 - August 4, 2008