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Every choice, in every story

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Our inbox makes it clear that NPR audience members are listening and reading closely as public radio journalists cover the contentious disagreements at the center of our public and private lives.

Whether the topic is abortion access, the battles over books at public and school libraries, or who has relevant contributions to the public discourse, every choice a journalist makes in a story is laden with ethical implications.

This week we look at stories that address all three of these topics.

An astute reader wrote to question a type of picture that sometimes runs with stories about access to abortion: the exam table with leg stirrups. After a quick search, we found a handful of examples on NPR's website. The reader thought the image was an inaccurate cliché, since most U.S. abortions happen via medication, not an in-clinic procedure.

Recognizing that many sources may not be comfortable being photographed, we investigated how photo decisions are made on stories about abortion. Read on to learn about the fundamental principles NPR applies in these scenarios.

We also spotlight a recent in-depth story that looks at the pressures librarians face in both school and public libraries. The story elevates voices and anecdotes from across the political spectrum.

Finally, we published a column this week in response to criticisms of the political rhetoric NPR included in stories about the FBI search of former President Donald Trump's home in Florida. This was a specific opportunity for us to examine how NPR journalists avoid the dangers of false equivalency and amplifying disinformation.

All these issues are reminders that details — photo choice, source choice, word choice — have profound implications.

It's also a good time to introduce our new tagline: Listen, explore, explain. That's the bulk of our job here at the NPR Public Editor's Office. We point out journalism mistakes and missteps when we find them. But before we do that, we listen to audience questions and critiques, explore how decisions are made behind the scenes and then explain what we find.


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.

The images in abortion rights stories

Julie Frazier wrote on Aug. 11: Please reconsider the stock photos you use for abortion stories. No other health related content uses images of exam tables with stirrups. Not colonoscopy stories, not childbirth stories, not uterine cancer stories, not miscarriage stories, not maternal health stories, not even hemorrhoid or hernia stories. Exam tables (even those without stirrups) are not even used for most abortions.

Why perpetuate this inaccurate and outdated image? Images like this are not impartial; they suggest that abortion procedures are extreme. This is because the anti-abortion industry has co-opted this image to promote fear in those who don't know what actually happens during an abortion.

Here are suggestions for other images: a doctor with a clipboard, a generic healthcare building or medical office building, a boxed pregnancy test, a chart or graph related to the story, a picture of protest signs about keeping abortions safe and legal, a picture of a state capital building. Thank you for considering this.

In reporting on abortion rights, journalists are tasked with making sure the selected visuals closely relate to a particular story. Sometimes, sources in stories about abortion rights do not want to be photographed, which leaves the team behind the story to figure out how best to capture it visually.

The referenced photo came from WBEZ, Chicago's NPR news station. This lead image is not a stock photo, but an original photo of a room in a Planned Parenthood of Illinois clinic. We did some searching and found a few recent examples of exam table and chair images picked from wire services, news agencies that gather news reports and sell them to subscribing news organizations:

  • photo of an exam table with stirrups was used for a July 20 Morning Edition story about an OB-GYN's plans to start a floating abortion clinic. That photo came from Agence France-Presse via Getty Images.
  • The same photo was used a week and a half later for a Consider This from NPR story about being an abortion doula in a post-Roe world.
  • third example from June shows a Getty photo of a gynecology chair in a doctor's office.
  • To understand how images are selected for abortion and reproductive rights stories and when a photo of an exam room might be featured in such stories, we spoke to Nicole Werbeck, NPR Visuals deputy director.

    "These stories were not edited by a visuals editor," Werbeck said in an email, referring to the aforementioned photos. "Reporters and editors often pull their own images from our wire services. Because the visuals team is so small, we can't photo edit every story that NPR publishes on the website."

    NPR's photo wire services are Associated Press, Getty Images and Reuters. Werbeck said photos of exam rooms should be used in stories about the rooms or the design of the equipment.

    "When a visuals editor works on a story about abortion rights, they are looking for images that best match the story reporting," said Werbeck. "It could be from a protest, a medical building or another subject."

    We found many examples of other images in NPR's abortion rights stories, including the outside of clinics, demonstrators and protests on Capitol Hill. Werbeck said visuals editors try to find photos from the wire resources they have. Sometimes they assign photographers to capture original images as well, she added. NPR has also published intimate portraits, as in the story about a Houston woman facing obstacles to medical care because of a Texas abortion law.

    Liza Fuentes is a senior research scientist with the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that supports abortion rights. She said if an exam room or space where abortions actually take place are directly relevant to the story, then it's appropriate to use a photo of one to be accurate.

    "An exam room is a setting where a wide variety of primary care, including abortion, is often provided," she said. "So if there is a news story where the setting of the abortion is at question, then an accurate portrayal of an actual exam room where abortion takes place could really help inform the nature of the story."

    We echo what Werbeck and Fuentes have said. The best images for stories about abortion rights, and stories in general, are the ones that directly relate to the focus of the pieces. And sometimes, a picture of an exam room is a good choice. — Amaris Castillo


    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.

    Libraries: Battlegrounds for culture wars

    A school district in Texas pulled 41 books off its shelves, including the Bible. It's not the only institution making such moves. Southwest correspondent John Burnett takes the audienceon a journey to understand the current challenges facing school and public libraries — from book bans to anticensorship protesters to forgoing cultural programs that appear to some as leaning in one political direction. In this piece, you'll hear from those who want libraries to represent all populations and those who think there's a line to be drawn when it comes to the types of books readily available to children. It's an excellent look at the modern debate over an issue that's stood the test of time: which books and ideas children should be exposed to. — 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
    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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