A misleading image

The New York Times' lead photo Wednesday sparked debate for what it revealed, but it was a mistake for what it obscured

It was something of a shock to open my parents’ New York Times this morning and see, stretching across four columns at the top of A1, a woman who looks like me. That is, she has two tell-tale lumpectomy scars—one from her tumor removal, and one from a lymph node dissection—on her breast. The photo, which starts at the woman’s neck—obscuring her identity and revealing a hint of areola—accompanies a story on whether Israel should institute nationwide screening for genetic mutations related to high breast cancer risk for its Ashkenazi Jewish population.

The decision to feature this photo quickly becomes problematic for reasons having nothing to do with whether it’s appropriate for a news outlet to run photos of breasts, which was the focus of most online reactions. (I tend to think America should dial down the prudeness but recognize that it’s easy to blur lines between documenting and objectivizing.) But the problem isn’t that the Gray Lady splayed a revealing photo across its cover, the problem is that the photo does not give accurate information about the story.

Consider the image independent of the piece it illustrates. The photo is artistic and provocative—even beautiful. It depicts a curvy woman in her late 20s, complete with a requisite millennial tattoo that contrasts with her lumpectomy scars. She shows a sexy bit of areola.

There is nothing wrong with showing a breast cancer survivor as provocative, beautiful, and sexy, but breast cancer—and genetic mutations, the topic of the story—is none of these things. Though it’s a delight when both can happen at once, a news photo’s crucial function is to convey information, not to wow the audience with the photographer’s aesthetic sense.

The photographer, Rina Castelnuovo, told New York’s Daily Intelligencer blog that she didn’t intentionally shoot an (apologies) titillating image.

“It was an unplanned moment,” she told us in an e-mail. “I was taking the young woman’s portrait and we were chatting about her cancer and the scars.” The inclusion of the areola, she said, was “not intentional.”

Intentional or not, the Times chose to run it, prominently. Some might say that the lead photo on a print newspaper no longer has the cultural clout it did before the rise of digital. To some extent, that’s true. But although the number of people who see the Times’ content online exceeds physical subscriptions, the majority of its circulation revenue still comes from print. So there are stakes in the decisions that Times editors make about what to feature on their front page.

And this time, the decision was to convey yet another retelling of a tired breast cancer narrative—one that emphasizes boobs over the women they belong to, the same narrative that makes a deadly disease cute, and pretty-in-pink.

Adding the story context to the photo makes its usage even stranger. The thorough, fascinating article, by Roni Caryn Rabin, discusses a proposal in Israel to screen a portion of its citizenry for a BRCA mutation. The debate touches on everything from genetic risk to religious observances to the stratified, racialized culture there that keeps Ashkenazi Jews at the top of the societal hierarchy. The proposed national screening would only cover Ashkenazis, who Rabin reports, are more than twice as likely to carry a mutation than the general population:

The goal of a proposed universal screening program would be to identify an estimated 30,000 Israeli women who have the mutations. So far, with sporadic testing, about 6,000 of them have been found, many only after a cancer diagnosis, said Dr. Ephrat Levy-Lahad, the coordinator of the Israel Genetics Consortium.

…Women who tested positive for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes … would be strongly encouraged to complete child bearing by their late 30s so they could have their ovaries removed by age 40. Risk-reducing mastectomies would also be offered.

So the screening program aims to identify women who would be candidates for much more drastic, and disfiguring, surgeries than the lumpectomy scar the photo depicts. Lumpectomies are used to remove a diagnosed, localized cancer, not to mitigate risk, often done by removing the majority of a woman’s breast tissue. A mastectomy patient is shown way at the bottom of the story’s online version, but that image didn’t make it into print.

Younger women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are likely to suffer from more aggressive, harder-to-treat cancers—types that usually require a mastectomy and additional treatment. The woman in the image, then—and I—are statistical rarities, and her torso misrepresents what breast cancer will look like for most of the women discussed in the story, BRCA mutation or no.

This misrepresentation is irresponsible for a paper that carries clout in setting, and furthering debates here and around the world, especially with its recent rebranding of the International Herald Tribune to the International New York Times. Breast cancer—all cancers—are big, bad, ugly diseases and rarely resemble the buxom rack splashed beneath Wednesday’s masthead.

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: ,