Airbrushing the News

How the media is peddling an agenda, via stock photos
by Alison McCulloch

I started thinking about stock photography representations in online news – and of women in particular – a couple of years ago after noticing how many articles about reproductive health issues on the two main commercial news web sites (, owned by APN, and, owned by Fairfax) were illustrated by stock images of very pregnant torsos – whether those torsos were relevant to the article or not.

Some weeks, it seemed like there was a pregnant-torso-worthy story almost every day (with a couple from the Guardian thrown in here for good measure):

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But of course, it wasn’t just the pregnant torsos, with their strange person-erasing (and diversity- and reality-erasing) quality. A classic of the genre came in 2010 when New Zealand Herald ran an article about a study showing women in New Zealand have to wait an average of a month to access abortion services and, not surprisingly, that they were not happy about it. Someone at the Herald thought the perfect illustration for this would be a 4D ultrasound image of a 29-week fetus “smiling and moving inside the womb”:

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Wow! I could issue a stream of curse words here, but perhaps some facts will suffice: There are so few abortions at over 20 weeks, Stats NZ and the Abortion Supervisory Committee don’t generally break down the numbers, most likely for fear of people (doctors, patients etc.) being identifiable. The latest figures I have, obtained under an OIA, are from 2009 for abortions at 25 weeks and over, and there were 6 (out of a total that year of 17,550, or 0.034%). There were probably no abortions at 29 weeks, so using that to illustrate a story about abortion waiting times was an inspired piece of editorial judgment (or an agenda).

A few people, myself included, contacted the Herald to point this out, and to their credit, the illustration was quickly changed … to a mug shot of former Labour MP (now Rotorua mayor) Steve Chadwick:

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Still weird, because Steve’s pic had nothing to do with the main point of the story. But there you go.

As a former commercial news media journalist myself, I started to expand my view to pay closer attention to the use of stock photographs to “illustrate” news stories in general, not just stories about pregnancy, contraception, abortion. Back in the day, as Adelia Hallett pointed out on a recent episode of RNZ’s Mediawatch Extra, photographs were used in the news to tell you something about the news. Sure, magazine-type articles might use some stock pix, but generally if there wasn’t a news or file photograph to go with a news story, there wasn’t a photograph.

Since news has moved online, however, it has become mandatory for every story to be accompanied by an image, something that’s at least partly tablet/iPad/mobile-app driven. Have a story about a secret meeting of mayors, which obviously you can’t photograph because it’s secret? Try this:

Some of the key words, or search terms, associated with this photo over at Thinkstock are “Adult, Blue, Business, Business Meeting, Business Person, Businessman, Businesswoman, Colleague, Corporate Business, Coworker, Discussion, Group Of People, Indoors, Inside, Meeting, Men, Occupation, Office, Partnership, People, Place of Work, Professional Occupation, Silhouette, Standing, Talking, Teamwork, Women.”

Oh, and it also comes in pink:

Stock pix like these are usually pretty easy to spot, but not always. There was one that showed up in my local paper, the APN-owned Bay of Plenty Times in January that I thought was one of the more egregious examples of misleading click-bait (and the Mediawatch crew talk about that in the podcast linked to above because I wrote in to whine about it). Check out “ ‘Teen heaven’ Campsite Irks Police”, at bottom left in the screengrab below of the Herald’s homepage:

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The story didn’t interest me, but I fell for the click-bait. Why? There was no event or campsite I could think of around Tauranga Moana that would ever attract that many teenagers in tents. Where is this place, I wondered? And is there a music festival on that I don’t know about?

Silly me, it’s Stockphotoland. Which you only find out by clicking and reading the photo credit (though I’ve noticed some news sites don’t even bother with those). Natch, I did a reverse image search (using TinEye) to try to find its origin, which turns out to be Oxfordshire, England, and which should have been obvious given the crappy weather.

The same stock pic has shown up on sites as diverse as Youth For Truth USA, Big Yellow Storage’s Guide to Festival Camping (aha!), MensXP’s How to Prepare for a Music Festival and the Guardian (“Camping is Definitely Not Communist”). And still, one has no idea what the actual “teen heaven” campsite that so “irked” the police (and an alcohol abuse expert) really looked like. (It’s worth reading the article to find out that these same “irked” police didn’t even know about “teen heaven” till the reporter told them. They responded by saying they were “concerned” and rolled their eyes). And, in case you’re wondering, there was a follow-up story reporting “No Trouble at ‘Teen Heaven’ Camp”. Bugger!

OK, so I realise tents don’t matter much, but it’s the principle of the thing.
What makes Stockphotoland rather more problematic is how much it caters to and re-inforces stereotypes. It’s a point science blogger Alex Wild made (and illustrated) nicely in a post about scientists: “Stock agencies,” he wrote, “are selling society back its own stereotype, and the merry-go-round spins ever onward.”

Stock images were born of marketing – of trying to get particular groups of people to buy certain kinds of stuff; or to illustrate company annual reports, brochures, political party propaganda and other promotional material. Family First NZ uses lots of perfect people in its promotional stuff, including, yes, yet another white, headless, pregnant Stockphotoland torso for its election-year anti-abortion campaign:

Over at Getty’s iStock, that photo (minus the wording, but including the aww-shucks pink and blue ribbons) is called “Pregnant With Twins XXXL”. (Julie Fairey has blogged about the FF campaign at The Hand Mirror.)

These kinds of stock images are made and chosen, as journalism and communications professor Paul Frosh explains in a paper aptly titled “Inside the Image Factory”, “in accordance with the classificatory regimes employed by advertising and marketing discourse to specify meanings and target audiences (most fundamentally class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and age)”. This, he argues, raises ethical questions about representational power, in particular “the inability of certain groups to control representation of themselves or even to be represented at all”.

Yup. Take doctors (and nurses?) for example:

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While I certainly can’t prove, just by studying the white coats, ties, torsos and occasional body parts that all these “medical professionals” are white men, the stereotype being appealed to is pretty clear. For some more (lack of) variety:

That “What Dietitians Really Eat” pic, titled “Pretty Young Woman Eating an Apple” on Realstockphotos, is admittedly not attached to a “news” story as such, but I included it as a cheap segue to this quite entertaining Stockphotoland collection of “Women Laughing Alone With Salad”.

There’s no law that mandates the use of an image with every online news story, it’s an editorial choice that, in theory, involves something called “news judgment”. The New York Times’ homepage is generally chock full of image-less articles, for example, while the opposite is true over at The Guardian. But once the image rule has been imposed, the next question is just how much you’re willing to spend, which is where Stockphotoland really comes into its own.

I had a chat with a couple of acquaintances who work for APN and Fairfax respectively, who told me that as the price of stock photos has dropped, they’ve been using more of them – images from actual news agencies like AP or Thomson Reuters tend to cost more than stock photos. And because the main consumer of stock images is the U.S., much of the imagery is American. There is at least one local stock photo agency, My Chilly Bin, but its pix are, I’m told, also more expensive than the American stock.

It’s a point that was raised on Mediawatch Extra by an anonymous staffer at one of the Big Two who, according to the presenter Colin Peacock, urged Mediawatch to look into “how APN and the Herald use cheap foreign stock pictures…for example, using pictures of American classrooms to illustrate stories on NZ education”. (I tried to track down this anon staffer, but no dice. Maybe s/he will comment? I’d love to know more about what goes on inside the sausage, uh, “news”-image factory.)

Another thing the American image storehouses have going for them besides being cheap is safety, (something they share with the news media’s more costly in-house photographers). With stock photos, copyright and royalty issues are all taken care of and you don’t have to worry about getting egg on your face with a hoax “news” photo from Twitter, Flickr or some random reader, as happened when One News and TV3 News aired pictures of a fake New Plymouth tornado back in 2007.

Click Bait
In the United States, meanwhile, the COO of Facebook and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg has, with her organisation of the same name, launched a campaign with Getty Images to try to change the portrayal of women and families in particular in stock pix. I asked Mediawomen NZ by email what they thought about this initiative as well as Stockphotoland in general.

Claudia Macdonald, a spokeswoman for the group who is the Managing Director of Mango Communications, said she appreciated that it’s not always possible for the news media to use locally or specially taken photographs, but in those instances “it would be good to think that the choice of photograph was made with the audience, geography and ethnic/gender make up in mind”. Macdonald applauded the Lean In/Getty initiative, and Mediawomen posted a link on their Facebook page. “So much has changed that it behoves us all to consider both what we say and what we show in case we create the wrong message for those whose opinions are only just being formed,” Macdonald said.

The issue of whether or not Stockphotoland would benefit from some diversity is a good one, and there’s been lots of debate about that – and about the whole Lean In movement in general. My question in the context of this post is whether or not “news” should let itself be invaded by Stockphotoland in the first place. Remember the advertising/editorial divide? These images, as Frosh says, were made for and by advertisers and marketers, and attaching them to a news story won’t change that.

Angela Phillips touches on this in her Guardian comment piece on the Lean In/Getty initiative. She argues it’s really the editorial decision that matters – a stock pic is telling us less about the world than it is telling us how the person who chose the pic sees the world. As Phillips puts it: “The choice to use one image rather than another is taken by an individual. If you think that pictures of leggy, blonde girls jumping is the best way to illustrate an article about exam results, then that is what you will look for. If your image of women is a pair of mammary glands on legs then the chances are you will find pictures that portray them that way. Positive images of women [author note: or of anyone!!] cannot just be layered on top of Neanderthal editorial judgments.”

In the end, Phillips suspects that the Lean In/Getty initiative will simply mean switching one set of stereotyped stock pix for another. (Have a look at the collection yourself and see what you think.) The questions media types might ask include: What’s the purposes of the picture? Is it just click-bait or is it doing something else? If it’s doing something else, what? How necessary is it, really? If it’s just a “key” image, like a key word, to help us quickly identify the subject of the story, there are less-problematic options (ideally file pix, not “creative” stock) to drop in till an actual news-related photo comes along:

True, their click-bait quotient is probably a lot lower than stock pix of headless people in handcuffs (a popular option for crime stories), or various collections of cat-walk-worthy white people with unnaturally gleaming teeth and perfect outfits doing things with salads, cell phones and computers. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a journalism that wasn’t quite so seamlessly able to embrace the values of marketing and advertising; in which blending Stockphotoland with the news was a little less easy?

Footnote : Alison McCulloch is the author of the book Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand. A version of this article first appeared at The Hand Mirror feminist blog.