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Horrific images in a handsome package

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

News comes to consumers in a package — or a template. Most of the time, this container is barely noticeable. But when it becomes visible, it's usually because the story doesn't seem to fit the box it came in.

This week we are addressing a question about NPR's photojournalism platform called The Picture Show. A reader wondered if its name made it an inappropriate vehicle for war photos.

I, personally, love this question because it gave us permission to explore a corner of NPR where powerful pictures tell serious stories. War photography plays an outsized role in history. Pictures from World War II, Vietnam or even recently Afghanistan changed public opinion in ways that words could not. Those stark images were occasionally delivered in containers that were designed for more elegant subjects. Think of Life magazine, a large-format, glossy publication designed to showcase stunning photos.

Often, the power of journalism comes in the delivery. When consumers are used to seeing beautiful people and places and suddenly they see human suffering, it's hard to look away.

Is it wrong to put horrific images in a handsome receptacle? Or is it an effective technique? Read on to see what we learned.

We address one additional audience comment today. A listener wondered if NPR hosts were more likely to address men with courtesy titles and women by their first names.

As always, we discovered a complex reality when we looked into these comments.


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.

Get the picture?

K.S. wrote on March 1: Do you think you can come up with a better title than "picture show" when showing images of the war in Ukraine? It really comes across as insensitive and inappropriate on the part of journalists. When I see that title, it makes me cringe: it makes me think the suffering of others is our entertainment.

The Picture Show was created by Keith Jenkins, NPR's senior director of visuals, in 2008. It has featured everything from Black sibling joy and the winners of the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards to climate change and war.

In an email, NPR Managing Editor for Enterprise and Planning Gerry Holmes said The Picture Show platform has covered wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and many other conflicts.

Jenkins added, "The Picture Show was also home to much of David Gilkey's reporting from the front line in Afghanistan and was one of the only places featuring not just the war but the people living through it." Gilkey was an NPR photojournalist who was killed in 2016 along with interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna while on assignment in Afghanistan.

Nicole Werbeck, NPR Visuals deputy director, described The Picture Show as "a 14-year-old visual platform for featuring a variety of visuals and storytelling including visual journalism from a diverse mix of visual storytellers from around the world."

Its name, Werbeck told me via email, refers to the visual storytelling that NPR is presenting. "We will not be considering a new title," she said.

Picture shows are not necessarily cheerful or fun. There is a rich journalistic history of documenting the horror of war and other human suffering through photojournalism. Photos, displayed as the primary information, have done much of the heavy lifting when it comes to telling the story of conflict. War photography remains a vital service to citizens. Though the title of this platform may remind you of entertainment, the content varies greatly and has included work that is lighthearted and joyous, as well as intense and powerful. — Amaris Castillo

Doctor who? Part 2

Kathy S. wrote on Feb. 24: This was otherwise a wonderful interview, but why did Ms. Fadel think it was appropriate to greet Dr. Sarotte — a distinguished professor at JHU, with a PhD from Yale — with her first name? That is: "Thanks for being on the program, Mary Elise!"

Although Ms. Fadel did state in the intro that Dr. Sarotte was a professor at JHU, she never used an honorific when speaking directly to her. [Kathy S. continued via email:] Would the interviewer begin an interview with a similarly-credentialed man in the same way? By way of comparison, here's a link to the transcript of Ms. Fadel's interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Peter Chin-Hong — both men — using honorifics and not using first names. And here's a link to the transcript of her interview with former Ambassador Daniel Fried — a man — using an honorific and not using his first name.

NPR follows guidance from the Associated Press Stylebook, which reserves "Dr." in first reference before the name of individuals who hold a medical degree that merits the title, including medical doctors, optometrists, dentists and veterinarians. Further, the AP Stylebook says not to use "Dr." before the names of individuals who hold other types of doctoral degrees.

​​AP style is designed to serve the news consumer not the newsmaker. By restricting the title of Dr. to those with medical degrees, audiences can easily recognize when a source or a subject of a news story is a medical doctor.

We did a little digging across All Things Considered and Morning Edition and found that NPR's use and non-use of the honorifics you mention seem consistent regardless of gender.

  • On All Things Considered, host Mary Louise Kelly referred to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as "Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield," and welcomed her as "Ambassador."
  • Fadel addressed HIV/AIDS researcher Dr. Carlos del Rio, who has a medical degree, as "Dr. Carlos del Rio."
  • On Morning Edition, NPR Health Correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee introduced the head of the OB-GYN Department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and an M.D., as "Dr. Catherine Spong."
  • NPR's Ayesha Rascoe interviewed Yale history professor Timothy Snyder. He has a doctor of philosophy degree but Rascoe does not refer to him as "Dr."
  • "As for a host addressing a guest by their first name, it depends on the circumstances but there are times when it's appropriate, and times when it isn't," NPR's Managing Editor for Standards and Practices Tony Cavin told me in an email.

    Honorifics carry great debate. My colleague Kayla Randall looked into this at the end of 2020 when there was a lot of discussion around the use of "Dr." for First Lady Jill Biden. Should we take into account the years it took for someone to earn a doctorate degree? Is it right to only designate the title of "Dr." for those with medical degrees? Should we go with how the person being interviewed or spoken about would like to be addressed? This Guardian article illustrates how varied opinions are around honorifics.

    It seems likely that inequality in the use of honorifics disproportionately affects women. A 2017 NPR.org opinion piece by psychology professor Tania Lombrozo touched on this gender-based disparity. And the previous NPR Public Editor Elizabeth Jensen also responded to similar questions about why NPR doesn't use "Dr." for Ph.D.s. Jensen wrote, "NPR's policy is not a case of gender bias ... it exists to provide clarity, which is what a newsroom should strive for."

    NPR strives to be consistent in how it handles sources' credentials and titles. On top of that, it's important for hosts to monitor when they address a source by title (like senator or commissioner) and when they use first names. We don't detect a disparity in NPR's usage, but we'll keep watching. — Amaris Castillo with research from Kayla Randall


    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.

    Tweets on Ukraine

    We wrote last week about how NPR is covering the news of the war in Ukraine. Many of the journalists on the ground, along with those reporting on the news from afar, have been using their Twitter feeds to keep people up to date on the latest news. Some of those tweets may never make it into traditional stories, but they are important updates nonetheless, especially for those who get their news from the social media site. Here are just a few of NPR's team members you should follow:

  • Tim Mak (@timkmak) has been tweeting updates and analyses from the ground — even giving us a sneak peek at what he had to wear to tour a milk factory as he reported that working in food processing is how many Ukrainians are contributing to the war effort.
  • Eleanor Beardsley (@ElBeardsley) has also been sharing updates, including guidance for Ukrainians communicating with loved ones in Russia who don't believe a war is happening. 
  • Leila Fadel (@LeilaFadel) is keeping Twitter followers informed with news from NPR and other outlets on the ground. One audience member was brought to tears by Fadel's recent story about Ukrainians watching for Russian saboteurs. 
  • Ryan Lucas (@relucasz) has been reporting on the crisis, including a story about Ukrainians' anger with their relatives in Russia. 
  • All Things Considered sent team members to report in Poland, including host Ari Shapiro. — Emily Barske
  • The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall and reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske 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
    Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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