Eric Schubert, the vice president of Communications and Public Affairs for Ecumen, a large senior housing and services provider, read the Star Tribune’s three-part series on nursing home falls and fired off an email.
Although Ecumen manages a nursing home where an 89-year-old woman died after a fall — and the state found neglect — Schubert isn’t taking issue with the series’ thrust, at least not to me.
Rather, his beef is with the page design. I’ll let Schubert roll it out:
I was struck by the photo on the front page in Sunday’s paper. There’s the title in all caps: DEADLY FALLS. Then there’s an ominous photo of a wheelchair just sitting in a hallway in the dark.
If you look at that photo, it spurs a lot of words in my mind, and I suspect others’ minds, not many that are positive. Such as: ominous, lonely, isolated, scary, depressing, etc.
What most readers won’t know is that the Strib didn’t shoot this photo. It’s from Istockphoto.com, an online stock photography databank. … And the description says it’s a hospital, not a nursing home.
In reality, none of us know what it is because the location is not placed on the photo. It’s very likely that it’s not even from Minnesota. Maybe it’s not even from the United States.
As it turns out, Schubert is right: according to Istockphoto.com, the photo is a “silhouette of empty wheelchair parked in hospital hallway.” It was taken by Polish photographer Roman Milert, making it extremely unlikely the photo’s from here.
So is it cool to staple an industry with an image unconnected to it?
Let’s state up front this is not the most important thing about the Strib series. Reporters Glenn Howatt and Pam Louwagie spend months chronicling 1,000 deaths related to nursing home falls, unearthing harrowing examples like the one at Ecumen’s Grand Rapids nursing home. It’s the sort of work that potentially spurs systemic reform and saves lives.
But at a time when visual veracity is very much in the news — think Fox News substituting protest footage to hype a Michele Bachmann rally — Schubert’s question is not inconsequential. In a high-stakes affair like “Deadly Falls,” shouldn’t the image that took up a fifth of Sunday’s front page be from an actual Minnesota nursing home?
Major disclaimer before we go further: My wife has done legal work for Ecumen. (Conflicts again; for more, see last week’s column.) Schubert didn’t know that when he wrote me, but he does now. I’m pretty sure I’d be writing about this anyway, since stock-photo issue is a new and interesting one to me.
The Strib did credit Milert and istockphoto on its front page, but credit text is small and not next to the photo. “I’m struck how every other front-page photo in this DEADLY FALLS series featured a photo caption with real people,” Schubert wrote. “I do not think in this case that a little attribution ‘istockphoto.com’ is sufficient.”
(By the way, the credit on the web version is simply “Star Tribune.” [Update: They fixed it.])
Schubert adds, “The Star Tribune has worked on this story for months. They used other ‘real’ photos. Why couldn’t they use a real photo that they shot on the front page as they kicked off the story?”
Cory Powell, the Strib’s managing editor overseeing presentation, says there’s a simple reason for that: “Homes we contacted for access said no.”
Schubert isn’t buying it. “They ran a photo [Tuesday] of a guy in a nursing home. They ran photos of families every day. They could have run any of those photos” on the front page.
Powell says there’s a reason there, too.
“For the third day of the project, we did indeed run photos from Minnesota facilities. Since the Day 1 [Sunday] story was about the deaths themselves, we didn’t want to use a photo from a nursing home that was doing OK to highlight the deaths. It’s too easy for readers to assume we’re implicating that facility. None of the homes where a fall-related death occurred would allow us in to photograph.”
So did Schubert enable the very situation he now deplores? The Ecumen exec insists he never got a request to photograph the Grand Rapids facility, which is about 190 miles north of the Twin Cities.
Powell acknowledges, “It’s certainly possible we didn’t contact Ecumen. Though we looked statewide at death certificates, we did keep much of the focus closer to the Cities. And with more than 1,000 deaths, we didn’t call every facility for photo permission.”
Since I brought up Fox’s chicanery, it’s important to consider just how misleading the Strib’s photo choice actually is.
I don’t disagree with Schubert that the empty wheelchair against a dark background is ominous as hell — after reading the text, you can practically imagine some poor old lady with a busted hip lying nearby.
Then again, the image is pretty generic — Anycarefacility, U.S.A. (or perhaps Anyhospital, Poland). In that, it’s hardly Fox fakery.
It’s also true that stock photos have a long and proud history in American journalism — they’re in newspapers all the time, with no complaints. Powell says stock “aimed to capture a mood, which our designer did quite effectively.”
Still, with my conflict-of-interest noted, I’d judge the Strib guilty of a misdemeanor.
Investigative series are labored over and lawyered precisely because it’s critical to assure the details are true. The wheelchair was not an obvious photo illustration, and not some small stock icon. Perhaps some story targets put up obstacles, but that happens all the time. The Strib has great photographers capable of taking an iconic front-pager both genuine and responsible.
Look, it’s far more important Schubert’s company makes sure its nursing stations are staffed so an 89-year-old woman with osteoporosis and dementia has her bed alarm heard before she breaks her hip.
But the journalism has to be tidy, too. In our de-monetized age, stock imagery is likely to proliferate, and I worry the next situation won’t be so benign. If nothing else, this low-stakes moment in a high-stakes story is a cautionary tale. To me, it’s not worth falling down what could be a slippery slope.