NPR Ombudsman

NPR Ombudsman


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 and Washington 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



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That's why you hire writers to write and photographers to photograph.

Sent by Emily Riddell | 7:46 PM ET | 08-05-2008

I think the larger problem is the low quality of some of your on-line audience. It is well known that people who eat lots of inexpensive carbs, such as potatoes and noodles, often end up obese. I agree that low-income people, who often have less education, don't have the money or the knowledge to eat healthy foods.

So, shame on the nasty, judgmental, yet ignorant bloggers who had a field day at this family's expense. "Blaming the victim" is a favorite pastime of those who are looking for an excuse to do nothing, since it's all the victim's fault.

Sent by Brooklyn guy | 4:40 PM ET | 08-07-2008

First let me applaud the important context and behind the scene sense-making offered your column. That said, I will quibble about a couple of, what I think are, important matters.
1. Poynter is a school for journalists, not a think tank. Ok, maybe you could say and think & do tank.

2. In journalism photographs should be used primarily as tools of reporting (witnessing, documenting and recording) and not just illustrating the news.

3. If it was OK to update the headline with a better alternative, then why not do the same with the photograph. I in my view two headshots would have been a better photographic alternative.

4. Ms. Dukehart is correct when she says, "it's fairly typical of the style of photo shot by reporters that we often run on NPR." And that's a big quality challenge.

Sent by Kenny Irby | 5:50 PM ET | 08-07-2008

I actually disagree with this to some degree, though I understand the reaction. It seems to me that, in the realm of normal, sane human beings, the item was fine. It is only in the realm of the Internet Troll that it became a problem.

Should we really allow them to dictate how stories should be presented on NPR or its Web site?

Sent by Dan Mitchell | 7:28 PM ET | 08-07-2008

". . .both of whom are overweight by American standards."

Oh, please. The two women in the Nunez story are obviously obese. Period. Your "by American standards" is a cowardly PC euphemism. The suggestion to photograph them in an "active posture" is simply hilarious. NPR is presenting itself in an even worse light than it did those women.

NPR's discomfort with reality and honest feedback is a far worse problem than the "trolls" you obsess over. And that fixation on "trolls", as if you're just discovering them, is a sure sign of Internet cluelessness. Do you realize how comical you look?

Sent by Bradley J. Fikes | 10:14 PM ET | 08-07-2008

More than 1,300 words on this? I don't want to seem overly critical, but this amount of verbiage and space given to "thoughtful" analysis of a modest issue seems to me to be overkill. It raises the question, an NPR ombudsman for whom?

I suspect this long feature was of more interest , possibly, inside NPR than anywhere else, I think an ombudsman serves best who deals with clear snafus concisely, and who does not have a column to fill at regular intervals.

Sorry to be critical, but long thought pieces, in my view, will be the death of effective ombudsmen.

Sent by C. O. DeRiemer | 10:21 AM ET | 08-08-2008

Bravo to the listeners and their empathic, insightful response to the uncomplimentary photograph of the Nunez sisters. I am so glad we have an Ombudsman to whom the public can express their views.

NPR's response and inquiry into the process of the building of this story appears to be an invaluable tool in cultivating NPR's empathy while sharpening investigative reporting skills.

Sent by Bettina Birch | 11:48 AM ET | 08-08-2008

Just curious if NPR would hire me as a photographer then in no time give me a pen, a pad, and a mac powerbook so I too can become a reporter.

I will probably make lots of mistakes and ask the wrong questions but with time I will learn to write and to be cautious and caring.

After that they may give me a mic, some air time and turn me into a radio personality. I am sure that I could do a briliant job on "Morning Edition" or even "All Things Considered." At NPR the sky is the limit when you know that radio producers suddenly "become" photographers.

Sent by Manuello Paganelli | 6:14 PM ET | 08-08-2008

please, people who have lived off the govenment for SEVENTEEN years and not done anything to improve their lot in life???? and you want sympathy. Get ANY job you can.

To say you are being advised to have a baby because you will get more money...great another welfare generation being developed....get off your BIG behind and get off the government payroll....

Sent by susie | 8:00 PM ET | 08-08-2008

Im sorry you folks are wringing your hands and gnashing your teeth in agony over your coverage. Frankly it outlines YOUR cluelessness about the story, your subjects and their plight.

I am not a "troll" just because I expect people to take control over their own lives and control the bad habits that ultimate lead to what you see. Just the fact that YOU didnt see the silliness of what you were communicating must tell you something about your outlook to the public.

Somehow Im suppose to get tears in my eyes over two irresponsible people not trying to take control over their destiny and wellbeing?

Come on...I'm sure you will disregard this email as a hard-hearted person or some right-wing nutjob but I contribute to several charities and help build for with Habitats for Humanity. Perhaps you might rethink your editorial policy. You look silly.

Sent by Gary Geraths | 8:01 PM ET | 08-08-2008

Obese by American standards? These two are obese by any standards because they eat crap and way too much of it.

Good thing that have to give up ice cream before they exploded. Stop your cry baby ways and realize that these two are fat by choice not because they are forced to eat fattening foods.

They can use their food stamps to buy healthy food but choose not to. Whaa Whaa.

Sent by susan | 9:08 PM ET | 08-08-2008

Common sense tells most people (apparently not NPR reporters) that people who have had to cut back on eating should be emaciated, instead these two are obese (by any standard), so the parody is naturally humerous, it was FUNNY, in fact it was hilarious. No other explanation is needed.

Sent by Kent West | 1:28 PM ET | 08-09-2008

I am a 52 year old male. I love junk food. I eat it all the time. I especially like starchy foods like French fries and Chinese noodles. When I need to watch my diet I don't turn to eating tofu and celery. I continue to eat all those greasy foods that I like so much. I just eat less of them. I am healthy as a horse. You don't have to be from an alien planet and don't have to have super human abilities to keep from becoming obese. You also don't have to stop eating Big Macs. You just need to eat less of them.

Obesity has nothing to do with income level. It has everything to do with will power. Before the seventies people used to believe that drug use had to do with income level; that most people who used drugs were indigent. Today we see some of the wealthiest people succumb to its appeal. It is all too facile to blame things on income level. It's a lot harder to accept that there will always be people who lack discipline and self-control irregardless as to how much money they have.

Sent by H. O. | 2:07 AM ET | 08-10-2008

I'm not sure what the author means by "overweight by American standards;" these women are overweight by ANY standards.

As for the statement "ignorance of the fact that many low-income people are overweight precisely because they can't afford to buy healthy food;" I'd like to see some kind of study to back up that statement. While I'm sure that that is a contributing factor, there are plenty of other factors, like that our society caters to the lowest common denominator, e.g., why are morbidly obese persons considered "disabled" and able to benefit at the taxpayers' expense with medical benefits, medical tools which foster and enable their "condition", e.g., motorized go-carts, and government-sponsored financial benefits? It is absolutely ludicrous.

Sent by Anonymous | 5:23 PM ET | 08-10-2008

In anything, shouldn't NPR have been just a little more selective in finding an appropriate family to profile? How can the average person empathize with someone who has never had a job, and did not take the time to graduate from high school? Many people have compassion for the working poor who are struggling in this economy.

Has the author ever been to SE Asia or any other developing nations? In SE Asia, there is extensive poverty and people are very thin! And yes, the staple food there is RICE! They eat rice, but do not gorge on rice.

I don't want to go on and on, but I agree with the person who commented that the time and energy spent analyzing this piece may have been overkill. Let's just move on...

Sent by Anonymous | 2:54 PM ET | 08-11-2008

Please cite your reference for the so-called fact that "many low-income people are overweight precisely because they can't afford to buy healthy food."

We know from your story that raising their income will increase their consumption of ice cream. You are making an outrageous--and I would say ignorant--claim that raising their income more would cause a switch to, what do you think, tofu and rice cakes like YOUR friends eat.

Why do we waste taxpayer money on NPR? I really don't get it.

Sent by anonymous | 7:09 PM ET | 08-11-2008

First, I'm terribly pleased that someone at NPR took notice of my comment. It's something that gives me faith in NPR's internal workings. I also am pleased to read a fairly revealing look at how this photograph came to be; for all of this, I thank the ombudsman and NPR.

However, I find my innate biases about the media confirmed through the words of the interviewed staff: reporters and editors care much more about 'the story' than their subjects. Given this, subjects need to do similarly and place their interests ahead of the reporters'. In this case, I suggest that it was in the Ohio family's best interests not to consent to a photograph or to being subjects of the story.

Sent by Jim Tung | 9:27 PM ET | 08-11-2008

While the ombudsperson (need to be PC here) states that the majority of comments have been directed towards the women presented in the photos, NPR is once again showing how they want to create news rather than report it. The reporter as well as editor failed to ask important questions which many audience members have posted on hundreds of blogs.

Take a photo that is sensitive to their size? You mean use Photoshop? You don't need a different photographer, you need to choose a different subject -- if you want us to "feel the pain/guilt/impending doom" as is the goal with so many NPR stories.

The two women photographed are morbidly obese, not just "obese by American standards".

Disabled, how? Both are standing in the photo.

Can't get a job because they don't have a car? Walk. Ride a bicycle. Seems to work for the millions of poor and skinny folks in Africa and Asia.

Poor? That is a beautiful apartment complex that they live in... at tax payer expense.

Blame the victim? No. It's called taking responsibility.

Sent by Tim in Spokane WA | 1:10 AM ET | 08-12-2008

I hereby request that you expand your inquiry. I believe you have missed the most important point.

Did the ATC reporter intentionally withhold a critically important material fact from listeners: that the women are morbidly obese by medical standards.

It seems that listeners were intentionally deceived and a specific emotional response was elicited that doesn't hold up when the viewers have an additional fact.

Does the original audio version of teh story hold up in light of the--intentionally concealed--fact that the women are morbidly obese by AMA standards.

Your response suggests that many other NPR audio reports are proactively deceptive. I've lost a lot of confidence in NPR as a result of this episode.

Sent by Loyal NPR Listener | 5:59 PM ET | 08-12-2008

When I clicked on the link to the audio version, I realized that I was one of the victims of a fraudulent NPR/ATC story. When I heard that story on the radio, I was left with the impression that these women could not afford enough food to eat.

But it turns out they are obese.

You should not have left listeners with the impression they are starving when they are obese.

I used to listen to NPR/ATC because I thought you had higher "truthiness" standards than AM talk radio. Now I realize that you simply have a different agenda.

Sent by ex-ATC listener | 6:15 PM ET | 08-12-2008

I love when propaganda backfires. In trying to portray how hard life is for the below average wage earners in our society, you actually showed how much better even they have it than most of the world population.

You also did a fantastic job of showing how Gloria and Angelica are truly victims of their own poor choices, not the economy.

Sent by Blaine Bonnell | 3:09 AM ET | 08-13-2008

There is a reason deficit in this country.

Sent by JodySol | 2:25 PM ET | 08-13-2008

You edited my post failing to mention the accurate reporting of this pathetic story by KFI 640's John and Ken.

Sent by Tim In Spokane | 6:27 PM ET | 08-14-2008

NPR, you missed the whole point! You should have never chosen obese people to use in a story about hunger.

Unless you shoot them from like a mile away, its hard to hide what they look like too. The sad part of this whole story is that without the photo, people would not have known that the subjects of the story were overweight.

Sent by evan | 5:06 PM ET | 08-18-2008

I am one of the "ingnorant trolls" you refer to that did send an email to the initial story. It was not cruel, it was stating reality.

I grew up in a very poor family. My mom was single, and we rarely had meat. This was in the 70's and times were very hard. Even worse. Single women could not even get credit and there not the hand out that are availale now.

But we got by (with little help from the goverment) and we were not overweight. We also could not buy "health food". You can eat carbs and stay thin, you just do not gorge.

I am sorry...any attempt you made to make us trolls feel bad, just makes me angry. I worked two jobs and put myself through college. It can be done. This family, and many like them, are lazy. I am not judging them, I would have the same opinion if they were thin.

I have been there - we worked hard and did not whine because we had to struggle. It is called life. Todays American's who have to struggle are whiners. How about a story about a family that struggles that has a postive outlook to the great country we live in? I come from such a family.

Sent by Wendy | 6:05 PM ET | 08-19-2008

Interesting that questions such as WHY this person has never worked and why she doesn't have a High School "degree" (I never knew High Schools gave out degrees) aren't asked. Did they even try? How many jobs did either one of them apply for?

Like many on this post, there were times in my life when I had little money and a lot of debt. No one helped me; I got no food stamps, subsidized housing, or social security benefits - nothing. I now make a six figure salary by running my own business and employ 9 people, looking to hire more. This took a lot of time and hard work and self discipline -- something all members of this story are sorely lacking.

Sent by Steve | 7:55 PM ET | 08-21-2008

So you're saying that NPR should have concealed or disguised the fact that the two women are obese (by any standard, not just the US. Health is health.) to placate the blogosphere and to show respect for the women? Perhaps only show pictures of fit, good looking people? How does that support "unbiased, accurate, complete and honest" journalism? But it does fit into other ways NPR stories and coverage skews or excludes facts to present a specific, biased angle.This story should have been about people who are getting fat off our taxes rather then find a job.

Sent by Rodeofish | 12:39 PM ET | 08-28-2008

As an aside, the weight standard today known as the BMI was developed by a Belgian, long dead, who believed some races inferior to others. Modern medicine cherry-picked the BMI, neglecting to take into account the themes in the research. Most have heard that according to the BMI, many pro athletes are considered obese.

The weight of these women has as much to do with ethicity and ancestry as with calories. I find the diversity in cultures and races amazing and frequently wonder why the medical establishment obsesses over a physical trait some may not be able to help. This is a classic example. That readers focus on weight rather than the substance of the story is a small light into the minds of many who comment on Web content.

I'd also like to remind that a large percentage of Web traffic comes from countries other than the U.S.

In some cultures, stick thin is the norm for beauty. In others, a fleshier look is preferred.

If modern medicine is ever able to break the yoke of the kazillion dollar weight loss industry, perhaps some logic will return to a subject few really understand.

And finally, I wonder who might have commented had the photo subjects been male. I suspect there would have been quite a different take from some of your readers, if any take at all.

best regards, Kay B. Day
The US Report

Sent by Kay B. Day | 3:35 PM ET | 08-29-2008

Wow, and ignorant troll comments were edited? Are you sure?

The trolls who comment here refuse to think about the political/social ISSUES involved and fall back on bashing people. The "reaction" of these bashing trolls shows that they aren't interested in the facts. They will have this reaction no matter what is presented in the story, this forum then becomes an occasion to justify ideological prejudices of bootstraps and get a life. There is no reason to THINK about this when you just want to point out "bad people". This becomes a forum for people to say..well I was poor bla bla bla and they are stupid lazy people.

Sent by kent strock | 6:36 PM ET | 08-31-2008

Apparently NPR thinks us "Trolls" with no Empathy are ignorant of the "fact that many low-income people are overweight precisely because they can't afford to buy healthy food".

As a former poor fat person myself, I can assure you it had nothing to do with the ability to buy healthy food and had more to do with me stuffing my face every evening in front of the TV. Since I broke that habit and starting eating less, (Including low cost foods like eggs) I am down 90 pounds, feel great, have more energy, and wish other poor obese folks would follow my example.

Sent by Jesse Forbes | 10:18 AM ET | 09-03-2008

Um, unless my math is off, this family has 62 dollars for food a week...I do the shopping for my husband and I, and usually spend around 40 dollars a week. we eat meat and ice cream. Is food more expensive in Ohio?

I do deeply empathize with the two women...what I came away from the radio segment with is the sense of overwhelmed helplessness of the subjects which has nothing to do with food or weight. are there job training, budgeting, and transportation programs available for those on public assistance?...if not, why not?

Gaining a sense of control and hope would likely help many struggling with symptoms of depression, as well as ultimately reducing the number of people reliant on public assistance.

Sent by elena | 3:24 PM ET | 09-15-2008


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Alicia Shepard

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