As November came to a close, WGBH Director of Photography Meredith Nierman sequestered herself at her desk to do what she had done last year: pour through thousands of images in an attempt to distill the year in news into one comprehensive photo essay featuring a few dozen. It’s a ritual undertaken by newsrooms across the country this time of year.
But as she commenced this annual project, designed for news fans and the general public alike, a nagging question kept popping up in her mind. What about the millions of people who are blind or have low vision and cannot see the images?
“The year in photos is an annual ritual for many people,” said Nierman. “During these last few days of the year, people gather around their screens to experience something very visual, very communal. And yet so many people would be left out of this reflective moment if the feature wasn’t made to be accessible.”
She knew just whom to consult in order to make WGBH's Year In Pictures feature more accessible. Down the hallway she went, from the WGBH newsroom to the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM).
Included in WGBH’s mission is to make our media content available to as wide an audience as possible, including people with disabilities, and for more than two decades, NCAM has been a national leader in doing just that.
With NCAM’s help, along with colleagues in WGBH Digital Services and WGBH News, Nierman developed an all-new digital story format that pairs each photo with descriptive audio and a transcript of that description. While the photo’s standard caption identifies the date, subject and photographer, the audio description puts into words the key visual elements of each photo for people who are blind or have low vision. The text transcript of each image description is also available for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“I felt it was important to make this story accessible in a myriad of ways, and to get the news community thinking about accessibility in general,” said Nierman. “As soon as those words came out of my mouth, Bryan and the NCAM team started nodding. They instantly got — and fully supported — the idea.”
“We wanted to take it a step farther, and make these image descriptions available to all people,” said Bryan Gould, NCAM’s Director of Accessible Learning and Assessment Technologies. “So along with the audio description, we suggested including a transcript. In a time when so many newsrooms are publishing similar year-in-review stories, we appreciated that Meredith wanted to do something different, and to reach a wider audience.”
That meant incorporating elements into the story design that would make accessibility features available for everyone, not just those who need it. This practice, known as universal design, can lead to unexpected benefits for unintended audiences. For example, video captions can be used by those in a noisy environment like a gym or airport. Similarly, image descriptions, while essential for people who are blind, may be beneficial for some people with learning or cognitive disabilities, or anyone viewing a photo essay on the small screen of a mobile device.
“The subject and tenor of the photos were the reason Meredith chose them [for inclusion in the Year In Pictures feature], so we wanted to convey that with the description,” said Gould. “It’s more than just person, place, and thing. The description adds to the experience whether or not you can see the image.”
Nierman and Gould carefully crafted the alt text and audio descriptions for each image to avoid redundancies, so that when a screen reader (a piece of technology that ‘reads’ a webpage out loud to the user) passes over each element they would get additional information.
“So much of what we take away from images comes from our experience of the composition and how the different elements relate to each other, to the light or lack of it, to the emotion conveyed in the faces and bodies of the subjects,” said Nierman. “So if you can’t see those elements, how do you really get to know the image at hand?”
In order to make the feature even more familiar to WGBH audiences, Nierman had WGBH reporters — including Esteban Bustillos, Emily Judem, Cristina Quinn, Arun Rath, and Saraya Wintersmith — record the audio descriptions.
Nierman and Gould worked closely with their colleagues in the WGBH newsroom to ensure this project maintained the journalistic integrity that is a staple of WGBH News across all platforms, including digital.
“The goal is to give people the tools to react without telling them how to react,” said Nierman. “To give people the opportunity to have a deeper experience, a greater sense of what is portrayed in an image than simply knowing person, place, thing.”
For example, one of the images Nierman selected for inclusion in the feature is of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. If you read the photo caption without the image, you might imagine the two world leaders shaking hands, perhaps even smiling, surrounded by dignitaries. However, the photo is poignant because Merkel and Johnson are basically alone, sitting side by side, turned away from each other. The job of the image description is to convey, in one or two sentences, both the unexpected setting and the leaders’ disparate body language without interpreting emotion or meaning. When done well, image description enables a person who is blind to experience the Year In Pictures in a roughly equivalent way as anyone else.
While the Year In Pictures feature is a first for WGBH.org — and, in fact, one of the first fully-accessible features of its kind for any media outlet, public or commercial — Nierman, Gould and their colleagues hope to use it again for future digital stories.
“We didn’t want this to be a one-off,” said Nierman. “Now that we have the technology in place, we will be looking for more opportunities to provide descriptive audio to go along with our photography. And beyond WGBH, we hope this might prompt conversation not just in the communities that are already talking about accessibility but also in other newsrooms and the communities that need to be talking about it.”
“At every advance in technology, NCAM has tried to ensure that those with disabilities are not left behind but are able to take advantage of the content and the user experience of what modern digital media and technology has to offer,” said Gould. “With its commitment to inclusion through accessible visuals, text, and audio, this feature upholds that commitment in many ways.”