Photos of gas prices
When journalists want to illustrate an economic hardship, they often select photos of the worst-case scenario. In telling the story of how bad things are, they inadvertently make it seem worse.
Think about the toilet paper shortage at the beginning of the pandemic. Yes, store shelves were routinely empty. But experts argue that repeatedly showing the images of empty shelves caused people to perceive the shortages as worse than they actually were, which in turn prompted hoarding.
There's a related problem when gasoline prices spike. News organizations often show images of the gas stations with the highest prices in the country, usually in California, which fuels a perception that gas costs that much everywhere. Savvy news consumers sometimes point this out, accusing the journalists of sensationalizing the problem.
A reader noticed that a recent NPR story on ExxonMobil prominently featured a months-old photo of gas prices above $6 a gallon and wanted to know why. Given that photos often drive consumers to click on a story, we thought it was a good question. So we asked the editor who selected the image.
Read on to see how we analyzed the decision.
We also highlight three recent examples of NPR's work. The first is the new season of the White Lies podcast, a combination of investigative journalism and narrative storytelling that delves deep into an old story with relevance to current events. The second is a great example of turning audience feedback into a story.
Last, when NPR announced a bilingual State of the Union broadcast in Spanish and English, we were curious. One bilingual colleague listened and liked it.
FROM THE INBOX
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.
A misleading photo?
Brian Farenell wrote on Jan. 31: I was dismayed by the deceitful photograph shown in this article [about ExxonMobil's 2022 profits]. The article was from Jan. 2023. But the photo [of gas prices] is from Oct. 2022. Those who didn't read the small fine print would infer that gas prices are currently $6.17 somewhere in the country. Even the cities with the highest gas prices in the country are at no more than the $4.60 range. There was no reason to use such an outdated photo if not to mislead in order to make a point. ...
This story, by reporter Camila Domonoske, is about ExxonMobil's record earnings in 2022, and what those profits mean for the oil company and industry.
NPR senior business editor Rafael Nam, who is Domonoske's editor, chose the photo in question to be the lead image. In an email, Nam said he "purposefully selected one with high gas prices, even if gas prices are currently lower."
"The story was about the enormous profits Exxon made in the entirety of 2022. Those profits came in large part thanks to high oil and gas prices. And through much of 2022 oil and gas prices were quite high, hence Exxon's extraordinary profits," Nam said. "Of course, gas prices are currently lower. But I wanted a picture that reflected how high gas prices got in 2022. I also selected that picture because it was from October. Exxon was not only reporting numbers for 2022 it was also providing its performance numbers for the October to December quarter. Hence, it felt appropriate to include a picture from that period."
Nam said he's mindful of selecting pictures of gas prices that actually correspond with the story. "It's something that's been pointed out to me before," he said. "For example, when gas prices surged in 2022, I've made sure the picture reflected gas prices that more or less corresponded with where the prices were at the time of publishing the story. And likewise when they dropped, it was about making sure gas prices more or less reflected those lower prices at the time. Of course, it's not always exact."
The photo caption makes it clear the photo was taken in 2022. But in hindsight, Nam said, he could have also noted in the photo caption that prices spiked through much of 2022, though they've recently fallen.
"That said, the story was about Exxon's profits for the year so I still feel the picture itself is appropriate for the story," Nam said.
Given the context of the story, it's understandable why Nam chose a photo that reflected high gas prices in 2022. However, photos are powerful tools and photo captions can function like fine print. Not all audience members pay close attention to photo captions, and some may see only this main image and form opinions.
This photo's caption is detailed. It provides the exact date the image was taken (Oct. 28, 2022), the location (a Mobil gas station in Los Angeles), and the fact that ExxonMobil posted record earnings last year and benefited from a surge in oil prices. We agree with Nam's assessment that an additional detail could have been provided to clear up any confusion: that gas prices are no longer that high. — 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.
An American story
In 1991, 120 Cuban men took over a federal prison in Talladega, Alabama, for more than a week. The men were not prisoners, but immigration detainees who had been held there since arriving in the U.S. during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. The second season of White Lies, the investigative podcast presented by NPR's documentary show Embedded, tells the story of these men and what became of them afterward. (The first season of White Lies was an investigation into the unsolved murder of a civil rights activist. It aired in 2019 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.) Co-hosts Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace, who spent several years reporting this story, weave a compelling introduction in the first episode by speaking to some of the officials present when the takeover began. They detail the boatlift from Cuba in the second episode. The series promises to explore United States values and issues of justice and fairness. — Amaris Castillo
It's probably not surprising that the Public Editor team, which serves as a bridge between NPR and its audience, is a fan of audience engagement. About 10 days after Goats and Soda published a list of wishes to make the world better in 2023 from leaders and activists, it published a second list with hopes from audience members. Unique responses came from a range of people, from first graders to retirees. The piece exemplifies that everyone has an interesting perspective to share. — Emily Barske
A bilingual State of the Union
In covering this year's State of the Union address, NPR promised bilingual coverage and it delivered. For the first time, NPR had parallel broadcasts for English speakers and bilingual Spanish speakers. Morning Edition host A Martínez led the bilingual program, featuring two interpreters seamlessly taking turns covering President Joe Biden's speech. At the end, we heard bilingual analysis of the speech from several journalists, including White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales, international correspondent Eyder Peralta, and political reporter Sergio Martínez-Beltrán from member station KUT and the Texas Newsroom. Hearing them go from English to Spanish felt familiar to me as a person who speaks both languages. The broadcast also felt representative of the Latino experience here in the United States: a chorus of different Spanish dialects. — Amaris Castillo
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.
NPR Public Editor
Chair, Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute
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