There is no denying the fact that visual representations —photos, graphics, and video— play a significant role in telling a story and conveying a concept. Even if the adage from early twentieth century, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, may have lost its charm a bit in this age of easy digital image/video manipulation, it’s not difficult to imagine why images and illustrations would have a tremendous impact in the communication of complex content, such as science communication. As James Balm (@JustBalmy), blogger and Social Media Assistant for BioMed Central, explained in an informative 2014 post:

We are very visual creatures. A large percentage of the human brain dedicates itself to visual processing. Our love of images lies with our cognition and ability to pay attention. Images are able to grab our attention easily, we are immediately drawn to them. […] When we see a picture, we analyse it within a very short snippet of time, knowing the meaning and scenario within it immediately.

Clearly, illustrations have a powerful effect; hence their popularity with content-makers and content-presenters, such as advertisers, storytellers, and communicators. It is precisely for the same reason I believe communicators, especially science communicators, have a responsibility to consider the ethical aspects of their visual presentations.

In order to do this, Paul M. Lester, a communications professor at California State University at Fullerton, recommends asking several questions, including:

  • “Why am I showing my readers or viewers this image? Is this picture likely to cause harm?”
  • “Does the taking and displaying of the picture fit the social responsibility of the professional involved?”
  • “Does the display of the image meet the needs of the viewers?”

I had discussed these and other crucial and pertinent questions from Professor Lester while expressing concerns over a photo used as the lede image for a New York Times article on the subway microbiome; I had considered the use of that particular photo irresponsible of the story-teller in that context because of the reasons I mentioned in my post.

Last year, Seth Mnookin (@sethmnookin), author and assistant professor at MIT directing a Graduate course in Science Writing, raised on Twitter some deep concerns about inappropriate illustrations accompanying stories about immunizations and anti-vaccination activism. For years, Glendon Mellow (@FlyingTrilobite), an accomplished artist/blogger/author who works at the intersection of art and science, has been advocating the use of appropriate and relevant illustrations for communicating vaccine-related science. Have the words from these wise folks borne any fruit?

I had the privilege of hearing Seth speak at a meeting yesterday, and asked him if, in the year that has gone by since his tweets, there has been any improvement in this situation. He is of the opinion that there’ve been some changes, in that more and more editors –in his experience– have begun to illustrate such stories with positive images.

Which would be good news indeed, were that to happen. And yet…

Science writer, columnist and author, Maggie Koerth-Baker (@maggiekb1) —(she is a good friend, Seth mentioned)— wrote for the AEON magazine a couple of days ago an absolutely brilliant essay, a deeply insightful discussion encompassing vaccine-hesitancy, vaccine-denial, vaccine-preventable diseases, as well as aspects of media coverage of vaccine-related issues. If you are interested in this issue, I highly recommend reading it.

Maggie’s essay was edited prior to publication by one Pamela Weintraub, author and Senior Psychology & Health Editor at AEON; I am not familiar with Pamela’s work, but my personal experience with magazine publication says that the lede images are usually the responsibility of the editors. If that is indeed true for AEON magazine also, I can’t imagine WHY and HOW this photo was chosen to accompany such a brilliant essay. Seriously.

screenshot from Aeon Magazine webpage for Maggie Koerth-Baker's essayCredit: screenshot from Aeon Magazine webpage for Maggie Koerth-Baker’s essay (accessed Feb 16, 2016)