When researchers searched for a stock image of a pregnant Hispanic woman for a science communication effort, they hit upon a problem.
Many of the images were of young, light-skinned people without the diversity in age or race needed for projects aimed at other groups, their study found. This matters, the researchers said, because including someone's face can humanize the subject matter.
“Many organizations that produce health outreach materials rely on stock photography sites to produce those materials,” said study co-author Michelle Jewell. She is a science communicator in the department of applied ecology at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh.
“In many cases, organizations that create outreach materials for minoritized groups or populations with lower socioeconomic status have limited resources, which exacerbates the challenges they face in producing effective materials that reflect the publics they serve,” Jewell explained in a university news release.
The problem was well known anecdotally among professional communicators. Jewell and her colleagues decided to study the issue to learn more about it.
In addition to finding a lack of diversity on free photography sites, they discovered a significant difference between the diversity in images available on free sites versus those that charge for stock photos.
“Images on stock photo sites with paywalls were significantly more likely to depict a person of perceived minoritized racial/ethnic identity and darker skin tones,” said co-author Catherine LePrevost, an associate extension professor of applied ecology. “The pay sites were also less likely to contain markers of high socioeconomic status than images in databases that were free to use.”
In other words, Jewell said, it's harder to find relevant photos of people who are not light-skinned and upper class. "And when you do find them, they are more likely to come with a fee,” she added.
For the study, the researchers searched five widely used stock image libraries for the health-related terms: healthy eating, exercising, quitting smoking, vaccination and pregnancy.
About half of the images included at least one person from a perceived minority group, but darker skin tones were less common.
For example, when the researchers looked up the terms "healthy diet" and "quitting smoking," they found no images of people with dark skin. Only one search term, "vaccination," had people with dark skin tones in 20% of its images.
“It became glaringly evident while searching through the stock photo libraries that certain populations are underrepresented,” said first author Zachary Chichester, who was an undergraduate at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., at the time of the study.
“It is imperative that we bring attention to this issue in order to ensure that creators of health education media are able to produce materials that are most effective,” he added.
The investigators also struggled to find images of older adults of any racial or ethnic group, especially on the free sites.
Jewell said this lack of access to free photos depicting diverse people should be something that organizations that support health communication and education recognize.
“Moving forward, granting bodies and other revenue sources should include budgets for photographers and illustrators to create media that best represents relevant audiences,” Jewell said.
The findings were published online Feb. 1 in the journal Health Promotion Practice.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on cultural respect in health care.
SOURCE: North Carolina State University, news release, Feb. 1, 2023