Should a Polish photo grace a Minnesota investigation?

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.

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Colleen Kelly on 11/20/2009 - 10:03 am.

    Where to begin?

    Tracking down the setting of a stock photo image might make for a provocative headline — and garner some clicks — but it shows a profound misunderstanding of precisely why stock photography was used.

    Stock photos are uploaded by photographers themselves for their ability to generically and iconically illustrate all sorts of topics. Using them is an everyday occurrence at newspapers and news magazines across the country — and has been for decades. It portends nothing.

    Although there was strong staff photography for the stories, it was primarily of individual families mourning the loss of loved ones, and of nursing homes in the state trying to improve their handling of falls. None spoke to the overall theme. And singling out just one nursing home — particularly one that was taking steps to address falls — would have been unfair and nonsensical.

    The image that was chosen — a simple, empty wheelchair in a darkened hallway — was picked purposely because the details of the wheelchair and hallway were unidentifiable.

    On a story as sensitive as this — and one that obviously garnered close scrutiny by nursing homes — choosing a photo that *didn’t* single out a particular home was the right choice.

    Colleen Kelly
    Weekend Design Editor

  2. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 11/20/2009 - 10:50 am.

    I don’t know. It is pretty obviously a photo illustration to me.

    This doesn’t quite rise to the level of the “crashing jet” clip the marketing folks at WCCO-TV used to gin up ratings for a Shelby investigative piece on Northwest Airlines many years ago.

  3. Submitted by Adam Platt on 11/20/2009 - 11:15 am.

    Misdemeanor?

    David, I’m not sure you’re appropriately distinguishing between photography meant to represent a story’s ethos and photography meant to document news. They are different things and it is really unfair to any publication to say that it is violating professional ethics by using photography that is meant to merely illustrate not document.

    That’s the kind of rigid, old-school thinking that has helped destroy newspapers. If the ST had learned how to compellingly illustrate its covers decades ago, it might have sold more newspapers and engaged more readers.

    And if I may go all ad hominem for a moment, what I find galling here is a corporate flack bringing up minutae such as this. I know of no corporate spokesperson who acts to help the media get to the truth. They exist to muddle, befuddle, and confuse. It is the ultimate puzzlement that people go from journalism to this role, which at minimum involves obfuscation at minimum and outright lying at maximum.

    When corporate “communications directors” start helping communicate truth they will have standing to become ethics lecturers. Until then, spare me.

  4. Submitted by John O'Sullivan on 11/20/2009 - 11:25 am.

    Robert, what’s the Shelby plane-crash promo you refer to? Was there a story done on this that I missed? Fill me in, please.

  5. Submitted by Jack Burke on 11/20/2009 - 01:00 pm.

    Why is there an underlying assumption that, because this is a big investigative piece it must be Page 1 display, even if we don’t have local photos or graphics to do it? Why not strip it across the top?

  6. Submitted by Eric Schubert on 11/20/2009 - 01:45 pm.

    Hi Adam:

    What I raised here is admittedly largely “inside baseball” for people who follow media. David writes a media column, so it’s a fit for this space.

    There are rogue caregivers, politicians, journalists, [insert every other profession]. But there are also hugely honorable people in all of these professions and others. I can’t stand things being irresponsibly stereotyped and that photo to me painted an unfair stereotype of hundreds of people and places that make many lives better. Many of these people are my colleagues or have cared for people I love.

    What I and the people I work with are so much more interested in is getting at solutions for Minnesota and our country in this historic demographic shift – The Age Wave – which the state and country are completely unprepared for., e.g.,

    How do we as a statewide community want to age?; Where do we want to live when we need supportive services? How are we going to pay for them? How can we help more people live where they most want to: in their home; and how do we create an easy-to-navigate, seamless, integrated health care system from cradle to grave.

    The Howatt/Louwagie story could be a very good set up piece for that. It could be a year-long series. Get us all in a statewide discussion. It’d be a perfect run-up the Gubernatorial election and could extend beyond the limited “tax” vs. “no tax” discussion/simplification we’ve devolved to. Minnesota needs innovation. And the aging of our society (we’re all aging)is a perfect place to work on common ground.

    – Another person gets Alzheimer’s every 70 seconds.
    – Businesses have no solution for lost productivity of employees juggling a day job and caregiving.
    – Sons and daughters struggle to keep a promise to Mom and Dad at home.
    – Most people think Medicare will pay for Alzheimer’s care, assisted living and other long-term services and supports. It doesn’t. Too many people don’t learn that until they are in crisis. That’s a horrible and painful situation. We can do better.
    – Minnesota has huge budget issues and I don’t see a rush to to put more government funds into senior services and younger people living with lifetime disabilities. But there’s going to be many seniors and younger disabled living in poverty. How do we ensure they’re not warehoused and can live empowered lives filled with dignity?

    That photo clearly ticked me off. But it’s a symbol of larger issues pervading Minnesota today – not seeing the bigger picture and not collaboratively working on tough issues that don’t have easy solutions. We can do better; we have to.

  7. Submitted by David Brauer on 11/20/2009 - 02:43 pm.

    Adam –

    Look, I get that I teed up the soapboxers. Talked to a flack! How dare he raise a presentation question in an important series! Now I know how fish feel in barrels.

    I’d be the first one to acknowledge this is a minor issue … in fact, I acknowledged it repeatedly in the piece, though that won’t stop some from a willful misreading to suggest I’ve somehow undermined the larger points of the Strib series. That’s just silly.

    I certainly wasn’t saying the Strib can’t be bold – oh look, there’s a red herring swimming alongside me!

    And I still think the limits of stock is an interesting question. I don’t think the image was so obviously non-literal as you, and I still think iconic imagery on an important story should be more obviously non-literal or more literally true.

    I can certainly understand folks thinking *I’m* being too literal. Matter of taste, I guess. I prefer myself broiled, which I guess I now am.

  8. Submitted by Bruce Adomeit on 11/20/2009 - 03:33 pm.

    What wine goes best with broiled Brauer?

  9. Submitted by Adam Platt on 11/20/2009 - 03:51 pm.

    David,

    I think part of the necessary discussion is what the parameters of that discussion ought to be.

    This isn’t an important issue, really, and I doubt I would have commented if it hadn’t given me the opportunity to swat at corporate pr.

    But look at the comments from Ms. Kelly. One of the reasons the photo was chosen seems to be its perceived innocuousness and propensity not to offend or be unfair!

    I wish newspapers, especially the ST, were bolder. I think the profession’s tendency to sweat the wrong small stuff has damaged it.

  10. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 11/20/2009 - 04:36 pm.

    I can understand Eric’s sensitivity, but I don’t see how an empty wheelchair condemns an industry or why use of a stock photo that may have been shot in Poland or Timbuktu is a problem; a wheelchair is a wheelchair. I did pause a bit at the image; usually, old people who fall and break something end up *in* wheelchairs. But the image was a dramatic way to attract attention to an important journalistic work without going anywhere near the line into unfairness.

    What really surprises me is a comment. In all the years you’ve worked in this town, Adam, you’ve never found a PR person simply telling the truth? I dealt with corporate and government communications people for more than 28 years as a reporter (disclosure: at the Strib), and found many,even most, to be very helpful. Sure, most put their employer’s spin on the information, but that’s their job. The reporter’s job is to see through any spin and confront it with facts. Good PR people save reporters eons of time by putting together needed information in time for the next day’s paper. I found very few PR people who lied, and any who did never again were my news sources (I wouldn’t even speak to them).

    The best spokespeople provide abundant facts with minimal spin and don’t complain when their information appears unembellished by spin. Some are more helpful with good news than bad, but facts, as the cliche goes, are stubborn things. When they’re going to come out anyway, you as a spokesperson might as well retain your company’s credibility by providing them.

  11. Submitted by David Brauer on 11/20/2009 - 05:18 pm.

    Adam – I totally get that, and Cory Powell noted the reasoning in the original piece.

    I absolutely do not think the Strib meant to be unfair, but intent and result can be two different things. (In other words, there’s not premeditation.) I understand the rational basis Colleen used.

    Your final point is your best one. Advice like mine can induce trees-for-forest. The danger of small things, as interesting as one finds them.

  12. Submitted by Chris Clonts on 11/20/2009 - 09:39 pm.

    Weak sauce!

    Bottom line: Misleading? Nope. Did it help draw readers in to an important story (that would not have the same gravity done as a strip)? Yep.

    Stock photos don’t kill people. Negligent nursing homes do.

  13. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 11/23/2009 - 08:56 am.

    To John O’Sullivan: That was back in October 1996. Minnesota News Council Determination #112, Northwest Airlines vs. WCCO-TV. It’s pretty damning, and was particularly embarrasing for Shelby, as he was playing host to 60 Minutes host(and Don’s hero) Mike Wallace, who was doing a story on the MN News Council when the determination was announced.

    Here’s the kicker–the story that prompted the complaint was honored with an Emmy Award the next day!

    Full disclosure to Adam Platt: I’m a flack, too, albiet a nonprofit one. We flacks read MinnPost too, you know. Good luck getting that next news tip from one of my brothers and sisters in PR. 😉

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