Cosmic journalism : NPR Public Editor Covering the images from the Webb Telescope

Cosmic journalism

Covering the images from the Webb Telescope

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
The bright star at the center of NGC 3132.
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

When NASA scientists saw the first images from the Webb Space Telescope, they were so blown away they realized they should let the president show them to the world. When journalists saw the first images, they were so blown away they dug deep into their supply of superlatives. Consumers were treated to words like "splendor" and "stunning" in story after story. Personally, I cannot get enough of stories that use the word "behold ." Because for me, the words create the context I need in order to marvel. NPR did not disappoint.

But not everyone appreciated the poetic waxing. A few skeptical news consumers questioned the images. It takes a lot of science to translate the information gathered by the Webb Telescope into something the human eye can see and comprehend.

How much information should reporters include about the process that transforms the data collected by the telescope and the process NASA uses to translate that data into visual images? If that information is not included in news stories, is that deceptive?

An audience member challenged NPR's decision to skip over these details, so we asked a science reporter who's covered Webb to explain why.

We also talked to the chief national editor about the strategy behind NPR's coverage of abortion access in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to rescind constitutional protections for the medical procedure. As a national news provider with connections to member stations in all 50 states and D.C., NPR has an opportunity to cover the story in a way that sets it apart from other media companies. We were curious about the plan.

We're also shining a spotlight on two stories — a big investigation that exposed how some states were taking the Social Security benefits of children in foster care, and a story about Amazon's designs on disrupting the health care industry.

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Misleading space images?

John Ritz wrote on July 18: When NPR publishes stories about the Webb or Hubble telescope images, it should remind us that these images have been doctored (colorized) for effect. Deep space telescopes only record in black and white. This is deceptive and misleading. The black and white originals are far less impressive and look like nothing more than sprinkled salt on black velvet.

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, who has helped cover NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, said his team determined that it's not necessary to explain the scientific process that produces the images every time they do a story.

In July, an NPR story about the first images from Webb described how the telescope was "designed to gather and analyze infrared light, which is at longer wavelengths than can be seen by the human eye. That will allow it to capture light from the earliest galaxies, which appear in the infrared."

Palca said, "We might occasionally tell people more about how the images are created, but we don't do it every time because we feel it's clear people understand that if you have an image in the infrared, you have to do something to be able to see it in visible light." He added that rendering the images as they were taken wouldn't work "because nobody could see them."

The images released last month were processed through various colored lenses that, in the end, still contain accurate information about color, Palca said.

To depict something that's invisible to the human eye, the image must be manipulated in some way, he said. It doesn't mean that the image is being distorted.

"It's a visual thing I'm describing, but it's not any kind of hocus pocus," Palca said. "It's simply taking what are black-and-white images that were made through a colored filter and superimposing them on one another to render the color that you actually see. That's a tried and true technique of photography. It's not any big surprise."

Other newsrooms have also addressed this question. This Quartz story calls the images from the universe not photographs, but data visualizations. "And that data is the impact of photons — light energy — on very sensitive circuits a million miles away from us," the article reads. "The various sensors on the Webb Telescope measure that energy and send that data back to earth, where it can be rendered into something human eyes can see." The story also explains how the rendering process can make people suspicious.

Palca noted that there's often discussion at NPR and on the Science Desk about how many complicated and technical details to provide in stories. They've chosen to forgo constant reminders of the explanation behind the images.

Thinking it's "an important thing to say to the audience, every time we do a story about the James Webb Space Telescope, that's fine, too," Palca said. "Editorially, we've decided that's not the case."

We agree, it would be more distracting than informative for NPR to include technical caveats in every story about the Webb images. — Amaris Castillo

ONE QUESTION

We ask NPR one question about how the work comes together.

How is NPR approaching reproductive rights coverage?

Since the Supreme Court's draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked in early May, NPR has emphasized stories that document access to abortion and reproductive rights. We wanted to know more about how the newsroom is approaching its reporting, which has included stories about individual experiences, activism and state policy, among many others.

Chief national editor Ammad Omar said there has been an all-hands-on-deck approach to the coverage. National correspondent Sarah McCammon is the lead reporter who has covered the issue for years, he said, but many of NPR's desks and member stations have worked together to produce comprehensive coverage. "Pretty much anywhere you throw a dart on the map of the United States, there's an interesting story about abortion that's worth telling right now," he said. That's because the Supreme Court ruling has affected access to abortion in almost every state in the country.

The immediacy of some state-level trigger laws, which went into effect immediately after the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade in June, created a high priority. Equally important were stories about states where abortions remained available and even had legal protection, often creating even more demand as people traveled across state lines.

Omar said documenting these stories comes with challenges. For one, it's a deeply personal and private topic. NPR seeks to report about those who are directly affected by issues and include their voices to share lived experiences, but that isn't always easy with abortion. Reporters must earn the trust of their sources to tell their stories.

Getting meaningful data to add context has also been tough because the impact of the ruling is happening so swiftly. Telling anecdotal stories that are fair and reflective of a wide variety of experiences can be difficult. There has been a lot of confusion since the Supreme Court decision and NPR is trying to provide answers to common questions, he said.

"It remains to be seen exactly how things will play out in different places and we're trying to provide clarity," Omar said. "It's confusing because it's a patchwork of 50 states right now that are all kind of pursuing their own strategies. ... We're doing our best to untangle that and clarify the situation, as well as continually trying to report the stories of people who are affected by these decisions. And that's not just patients, that's medical groups ... and interest groups on either side of the debate." — Emily Barske

SPOTLIGHT ON

The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

State foster care agencies take millions from children

Last year, NPR and The Marshall Project produced a sobering investigation about a little-known practice by state federal agencies: taking the Social Security benefit checks of children and youth in foster care. NPR investigations correspondent Joseph Shapiro guides listeners through a system where some states routinely take money reserved for the child and instead use it to reimburse themselves for the cost of foster care. Shapiro described one particular case: "In effect, she, a child, was being charged for her own foster care, for something that states are required to pay for by federal and state law." NPR and The Marshall Project called attention to this practice, and more stories developed from this diligent work. — Amaris Castillo

Amazon and health care

Good journalism provides historical context, looks at what's happening now and shares information about what it could mean later. A digital piece by NPR digital news intern Shauneen Miranda dives into Amazon's past, present and future in the health care industry. The tech giant's plan to buy the primary care organization One Medical for almost $4 billion prompted the story. While Amazon is known for its vast digital presence, the sources interviewed point to examples like Whole Foods, where Amazon is prioritizing brick-and-mortar spaces combined with online experiences. Read the piece to learn what could come from this Amazon endeavor and what both health and privacy experts think of their plans. — Emily Barske

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Chair,
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute