About Ethics In Science News Journalism And Editorial Practices

Media and communication professionals, including those in the news business, understand the power and value of visual communication. The old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words“, has never been truer than it is now, what with the nearly ubiquitous use of imagery and iconography – both moving and still – to communicate information via printed material, digital screens, and even the built environment.

This phenomenon is outside my area of expertise (so I wouldn’t hold forth more on this), but linguists, social scientists, educators, and psychologists have studied this for decades. Apparently, 6-7 out of every 10 individuals are visual learners who benefit from images in their instructional material, and according to Jerome Bruner, a distinguished NYU psychology professor, people only remember 10% of what they hear, 30% of what they read, but about 80% of what they see and do (as quoted by Paul M. Lester, communications professor at California State University at Fullerton, in his writing). Therefore, the importance of visual communication cannot be overstated.

As we appreciate the dominance of visual communication in information dispersal, the question of ethics and ethicality becomes important. As Professor Lester further wrote:

Because visual messages have great emotional power to educate, entertain, and persuade, there is a great responsibility put on every image producer for public consumption. To deal with the ethical aspects of visual presentations in a truly ethical way, start by asking this question: Why am I showing my readers or viewers this image? Is this picture likely to cause harm?

These are crucial questions. Pictures, even without overt digital manipulation, may harbor a certain amount of danger of misperception. On this point, John Stilgoe, Orchard Professor in the history of landscape development at Harvard, was quoted in a 2009 Harvard Magazine essay to say that it was “really easy to manipulate people with images… if you don’t tell them the context, or where an image came from”, and illustrate this idea with a set of his own photographs. Stilgoe also emphasized the idea that the proper evaluation of an image often needs a commensurate and adequate background understanding.

Professor Lester concluded with some important questions:

Given a theory of visual communication that combines words and images in equally respectful ways, knowing the difference between aesthetics, etiquette, and ethics, and studying the moral philosophies that have been employed for specific communicative purposes, all visual analyses should answer the following questions:

  • Does the taking and displaying of the picture fit the social responsibility of the professional involved?
  • Has no one’s rights been violated in the taking and displaying of the picture?
  • Does the display of the image meet the needs of the viewers?
  • Does the picture choice reflect moderation?
  • Does the professional choice reflect empathy for the subject’s experience?
  • Could a professional justify the choice if she didn’t know which of the parties (subject, shooter, or viewer) she would turn out to be?
  • Does the visual message cause unjustified harm?

Developing an ethic for images that are seen within educational, entertainment, and persuasive mass media constituencies requires thoughtful deliberation as to the meaning of visual messages themselves as well as a clear understanding how moral philosophies can be employed to further define and refine a creator’s product and a consumer’s reaction. An ethic for images is an ethic for all of us. [Emphasis mine]

Wise words. And that leads me to the reason why I was prompted to stray so far from my zone of comfort – namely, my discipline – and wade into the field of visual communication.

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a story based on a recently published metagenomics study, in which the investigators collected swabbed samples from various surfaces present in the NYC Subway system and public parks. The samples yielded a kind of city-wide DNA profile, in which about half were, not surprisingly, bacteria (including some antibiotic-resistant ones), and a smidgen of eukaryotes (less than 1%) including fruit fly, beetle, and human. Most surprisingly, the source of DNA in close to half of the samples could not be definitively identified, leaving the investigators to speculate about what those unknown organisms might be. The results were interesting per se, and I might write on them if I can find the time.

But that’s not what initially caught my eye. The NYT story by Elizabeth Harris was titled: “Among New York Subwayis Millions of Riders, a Study Finds Many Mystery Microbes“. The prominent, bold-faced title was immediately juxtaposed with the photo of a woman of color (WoC), a passenger, with eyes closed, either wearing a hat or the Islamic religious head-scarf called hijab. Her reflection was caught on the train window spattered with dried water-spots, likely from the rain. The caption below the photo proclaimed it to be of a rider on a C train in Manhattan last month.

Screenshot of photo accompanying NYT article

Credit: NYT; Screenshot of photo accompanying NYT article

Note the choice of photo. As is clear from the caption, the photo bears absolutely no relevance to the metagenomics study on the Subway system. So, does this image meet the needs of the viewers? To my mind, the answer is, ‘No.’ I am not even getting into the question of whether displaying that photo – taken in a public place – violated the woman’s rights in any way. But two related questions are large in my mind – did the professional choice reflect empathy for the subject’s experience? And more importantly, did the visual message end up causing unjustified harm?

‘Microbes’ do not necessarily imply disease, but that salient fact is easily misunderstood and ignored by most ordinary people. In the essay, the denials issued by the transit officials and the reflexive rejection of the data by the city’s health department (who, really, should know better) bear a resounding testament to that. Therefore, in all likelihood, people will see the word ‘microbe’ in the title, look at the photo, and go away with the impression that a specific demographic – WoC and/or immigrants, already marginalized and demonized in today’s political scenario – is further to blame for bringing a ‘mystery disease’ to NYC.

So, to my mind, yes, the visual message carried by this unnecessary and context-less photo does cause unjustified harm.

Seth Mnookin, professor at MIT and the author of The Panic Virus, has recently raised the issue of inappropriate illustrations accompanying the news stories in the context of immunizations and anti-vaccination fears and concerns. The problem with the NYT photo goes deeper, because the potentially harmful messaging is subliminal and micro-aggressive towards an already-vulnerable subsection of humanity.

I should clarify that I don’t hold the journalist, Ms. Harris, responsible for this faux pas. Having had some experience in this area, I know that the lede image is usually the responsibility of someone at the editorial level.

Via Twitter, I spoke to Glendon Mellow, an accomplished artist/blogger who works at the intersection of art and science, about his impression of this photo. He agrees that this photo, an otherwise nice photographic work, doesn’t work for this story; he wrote:

I suspect most mainstream news outlets don’t really have image editors, but instead people who just source them. I actually prefer metaphorical images to factual for science stories, and sometimes they are less accurate. That said, to humanize this story it would have looked better if they had taken a pic of a bunch of commuter’s feet, with the focus on the slightly dirty floor of the subway… what I mean is that either more faces reflected in the glass, or more “hidden but trafficked parts of the subway” like the floor could have conveyed the story better than this one.

It would certainly have been more appropriate for the story, and in accordance with the social responsibility of the story teller.

What do you think, dear reader? If you agree with me, or if you think I am over-reacting to this, do write in the comments. I welcome your critiques.

6 Comments

  1. I think that the photographer and editor’s judgement was clouded by white privilege. I saw the photograph and saw a woman of lower socioeconomic status riding next to a window spattered with gods-only-know what microorganisms. I read it as an attempt to connect the topic, “mystery DNA” with the human concern of “are we (with her as one of us) at any risk or benefit from these microorganisms?” To me, and likely the people creating the story, this was the intended message: you should care about the story, because in the long run, it could make a difference for human health.

    because white people on the left can be really, really bad about catching dogwhistles. The racist message doesn’t fit with the way I think. But once it’s pointed out, I can see how xenophobes could fail to see the film on the glass as the issue and think “dirty foreigner bringing unknown disease” instead.
    I guess publishers really need someone to do a sort of Microaggression Editor job and review the stories for unintentional problems before they go out.

  2. I see what you mean, and agree that they shouldn’t have used it. On the other hand I think what they were going for may have been everyday subway rider + vulnerability. She looks faintly Madonna-esque (Jesus’s mommy Madonna, not the singer), and vulnerable because of the closed eyes. You know? “Innocently dozing on the train while there are all these MICROBES on the window.” But what they were going for and what others will see are not necessarily the same thing.

  3. I agree with Ophelia, though I would also assert that the microbes should perhaps have had a large role in the photo.

  4. The more I look at it the more I doubt. She’s really rather beautiful, and what she’s most reminiscent of is paintings with angels in them. The filthy window looms large, threatening her. I’m starting to admire it as a composition.

    It’s an interesting exercise.

  5. Ophelia, I agree with you that the composition itself is something special. The halo of spatters encircles the reflection of the woman’s closed eye. The faintly visible station out of the window is enough of a visual clue that it’s not just a dark window, but a subway window. I like the photo on its own.

    I don’t think it is the best photo they could have used for this story though. Leaving aside questions of race, the photo seems to be largely irrelevant to a story about non-human DNA found in subway tunnels. The story itself actually makes me think of the movie Men In Black II when Will Smith is confronting a giant alien worm in the subway.

  6. Thank you for your comments, Ophelia, Samantha, A dot, and Glyndon. I would like to clarify one aspect. This post is emphatically not a critique of the aesthetic beauty of the photo or its subject. The photo, as Glyndon and Ophelia pointed out, is indeed a good composition. However, the fact that each of you are interpreting the photo in a slightly different way goes to show that this photo was not the ideal one for the story – because it would (as it seems to be doing) divert or misdirect the focus of attention away from the story, depending on each observer’s interpretation.

    Since no element in the photo is remotely reminiscent of microbes, I think it’s only natural to associate the only relatable element – the human face – to the main focus of perception of the story, the microbes, and that would indeed be too unfortunate.

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