Ever see a shape in the clouds or a face in the moon? Ever feel so confident that the shadow on the wall is actually a monster in your room? It’s called visual illusion — believing you’re seeing something that actually isn’t there. And it’s such a strong phenomenon that even when we know otherwise, we can’t force our minds away from the perception we’re already confident in.
That’s because the human mind is fallible. It overcompensates. With so much information to process, there are times when our brain will simply fill the gaps and take short cuts to encode and relay information that confirms an already registered experience. Basically, the mind adds a context and sometimes that context is incorrect. As one scientist put it: “An illusion is a phenomenon in which our subjective perception doesn’t match the physical reality of the world.” — “Optical Illusions: When Your Brain Can’t Believe Your Eyes”, ABC (2009)
That’s one explanation for what happened in a Cincinnati news room earlier this month, when WCPO-TV station manager Jeff Brogan and his team viewed a photograph of a woman breastfeeding. So convinced were they that they were viewing a nipple on the screen, the station went to great lengths to blur the image (and a great deal of the picture), out of fear of fines or penalties from the FCC.
Flash back to 2004. During the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, Justin Timberlake removed the breastplate and fabric lace covering Janet Jackson’s right breast.
“For 9/16ths of a second, millions of viewers see Janet’s bare breast and its strange star-shaped nipple shield before Jackson realizes what has happened and covers herself up. Timberlake, red lace in his left hand, looks appalled as producers cut away to a distant long shot and firework display. — “Nipple Ripples: 10 Years of Fallout From Janet Jackson’s Halftime Show”, Rolling Stone (2014)
Of the 90 million watching the show, a mere fraction of the viewers (540,000) sent complaints to the FCC. CBS was fined $550,000 for violating rules on broadcast indecency. The media giant fought the fines and after an eight year battle, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that while the exposure was “fleeting indecency”, it did not violate the existing FCC criteria at that time and sided with CBS.
Even with the court’s ruling, stations weren’t going to take the risk. Broadcasters began policing themselves to prevent fines and potential losses of licenses. The precautions have been so extreme, even in educational programming, nipples are censored from the screen. Unless, of course, they are aren’t actual nipples, but just nipple drawings. Consider this story from WTVR-TV in 2013, where a woman’s bare chest was shown on screen, with a disclaimer, in a segment on reconstructive surgery and nipple tattoos for breast cancer survivors.
The FCC was given regulatory power over broadcasters regarding indecency in the 1978 landmark case FCC v Pacifica Foundation (i.e. "The George Carlin Filthy Words Case"). The Supreme Court ruled that due to the intimate and pervasive nature of broadcasting and the likelihood that children might be in the audience, regulation in this specific medium would not violate the First Amendment, provided context was considered. Broadcasters were free to challenge any sanctions and safe harbor hours were determined to allow for content when children would most likely not be viewing.
The current criteria outlined by the FCC on indecency reads, in part, as follows:
“Material is indecent if, in context, it depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium. In each case, the FCC must determine whether the material describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities and, if so, whether the material is patently offensive.
In our assessment of whether material is patently offensive, context is critical. The FCC looks at three primary factors when analyzing broadcast material: (1) whether the description or depiction is explicit or graphic; (2) whether the material dwells on or repeats at length descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory organs; and (3) whether the material appears to pander or is used to titillate or shock. No single factor is determinative. The FCC weighs and balances these factors because each case presents its own mix of these, and possibly other, factors.” — “Obscenity, Indecency & Profanity — FAQ”, FCC.gov
While the language is broad, in a thorough examination of all case history, complaints and rulings, the overriding constants in fines or penalties to stations on indecency deal with sexual context and/or the concepts to protect children.
Double Standards & Sexual Undertones
The female nipple is still considered rather scandalous in this nation, even though we know laws are sexist and arguments barring it fail critical thinking. Still, because of the objectification and sexualization of the female breast, it is held to a different standard than most other non sexual organs of the human body. Much like a woman’s legs were once covered, the expectation that women cover their breasts and nipples permeates the current culture.
In Jackson’s case, her breast was clearly being presented as provocative and sensual. The wardrobe malfunction took place while lyrics to “Rock Your Body” were being sung. In the years since then, far more provocative and sexual content has aired on television without penalty, but the female nipple is still very much off limits for most broadcasting companies.
Even though there is nothing inherently sexual about the female breast or nipple. The female breast is not a sex organ. It is not genitalia. It is merely, like most all other areas on our bodies, multi-functional. We can certainly use parts of our body to elicit erotica, but we also use the same body parts engaging in activity that has no sexual context. (Think hands and lips).
As with the case of breastfeeding. When a child is nursing from a lactating nipple, there is absolutely no context of that being sensual. It is simply the function of the breast during the reproductive process to deliver milk to offspring from the mammary glands.
Are fears that a government agency may enforce sanctions if a broadcast outlet airs breasts or nipples in the context of breastfeeding reasonable? No. Because the government itself acknowledges there is nothing about a child extracting milk that is indecent.
It is precisely because breastfeeding is not indecent, that specific laws have been enacted to protect the right to nurse children in public locations. Forty nine states, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia all have statutes on public breastfeeding. The nursing breast is exempt from public indecency statutes in multiple states and the federal government protects the right to breastfeed, without qualification, on all government property. In many states, violations of the statutes come with strict enforcement and discrimination of a breastfeeding family can be costly.
Regardless, there are hundreds of documented cases of harassment and discrimination each year (and a vast percentage never known). From play centers to restaurants to retail stores, post offices and even medical centers, breastfeeding families are subject to a cultural stigma that permeates society.
This stigma has continued to keep breastfeeding out of sight for the vast majority of society. Even images of breastfeeding families are ridiculed and reported as pornography. There is little more the law can do. Norms and mores must change too.
Normalizing is a movement to eradicate this cultural stigma surrounding breastfeeding in public, with August named as “National Breastfeeding Month”. The month is devoted to initiatives in healthcare, workplace rights for lactating mothers and specific times to highlight the unique challenges of breastfeeding women of color. NBM also includes efforts to drive awareness and education of normalizing through stronger enforcement legislation, community protest and specific times of highlighted media focus.
And never has there been a more appropriate example that exposure and awareness is needed when a media outlet attempting to educate the public on breastfeeding evidences they themselves do not have a clue what they’re seeing.
Heather DeLisle & A Feeding Photograph
When New Richmond, Ohio resident Heather DeLisle decided to participate in a photo shoot to help bring awareness to tube feeding and the families who struggle daily to provide nourishment to their children who suffer from eosinophilic gastroenteritis, she never could have imagined her decision would be a case study on broadcast ethics. She just wanted to showcase her journey and support others in never feeling ostracized for feeding their children.
DeLisle’s journey began when she posted one of the photos on her Facebook page. Within minutes it was flagged for review and reported for nudity because she was not only tube feeding, but breastfeeding. Each time it was reported, Facebook rejected the naysayers because the photograph did not violate any of their community standards. Word began to spread rapidly about the photo and within days it was trending, spreading viral across the internet.
That’s when DeLisle says her local news station contacted her asking for an interview.
“[WCPO] stated that the story was going to address and bring to light my son’s illnesses. [They] mentioned that since it was breastfeeding awareness week, [the station] would like to go from the angle of normalizing breastfeeding, since my original picture depicting me nursing my baby while tube/bolus feeding two of my boys, had been reported as nudity,” DeLisle said. “[The reporter] wanted to talk about how I felt about that and ‘what is the big deal’ with breastfeeding or tube feeding in public. I told him that was fine, but I wanted to make sure to bring to light the rare disease from which they suffer. So, we did the interview.”
But by the time the footage got to post production, things had changed. An editorial decision was made to blur the original photograph for broadcast. The entire face of the infant was hidden as well as DeLisle’s breast. WCPO also blurred the footage they requested of her nursing her daughter during the interview.
DeLisle was rightfully confused and upset, believing the station had needlessly censored the photograph, thereby taking the focus off her sons while also contradicting the normalization she believed she was advocating through doing the story.
Over 100 women, men and children converged upon the property of WCPO days later to protest the censorship and call for an apology from the station and a rerun of the segment without the edit. Letters were written and news of the protest was shared with over 800,000 from multiple online communities. DeLisle, herself, reached out explaining how taken advantage she felt and that she never would have agreed to allow the station in her home had she known the way they would have distorted the very cause she was fighting for.
The station cited FCC regulation and said that the photograph needed to be blurred because a nipple was clearly visible.
Only, it wasn’t a nipple. It was the baby girl’s thumb.
“The situation is far worse than I thought if we have members of the media getting confused when they come across a baby thumb and jump to nipple,” said Jessica Martin-Weber, founder of “The Leaky Boob”, an online community support group for over 200,000 breastfeeding families with a reach of over a million a week. She says she receives complaints daily of reported breastfeeding photos, even when no nipple is ever present.
“It is hilarious the number of times breastfeeding photos are claimed to have nipples visible when they don’t,” said Martin-Weber. “Although, it’s not as though we’re accustomed to seeing them in society, so I suppose it’s easy to mistake them for genitals, unicorns, and the Blood Diamond because really, they’re just as rare. So, it is understandable to a point that female lactating nipples are confusing. But I can’t explain not recognizing thumbs or a woman’s chest for that matter.”
For those active in breastfeeding support groups like Martin-Weber's (or who have taken a rudimentary class in anatomy), it was clear that it would have been impossible for a nipple to be visible in the photograph, as the child was actively nursing, thus the latched nipple was inside the infant’s mouth. It was also obvious based on DeLisle’s cup size that it would be a miracle for her nipple to appear that close to her collarbone without massive cleavage present (regardless of what kind of wonderbra she might have had, let alone the strength of an infant‘s arm). There was absolutely no way what the station was calling a nipple could be anything but a visual illusion when viewing a pinched breast. (Ask a breastfeeding mother and she’ll tell you she also knows quite a bit about that).
But no one in that newsroom saw that. For every single person who viewed the photograph, edited the footage, signed off on the script, reviewed the segment and anchored the piece, not one person in that building knew what they were actually seeing. And even when the station manager and their parent company, Scripps, were informed that they must be confused because no nipple was present, the station still wasn’t convinced.
In a follow up segment days later, they broadcast the photograph again, this time, with DeLisle’s full breast in view, with one very minor exception: They decided to put a blur over the child’s fingers.
Eating Crow. Or Not.
The mistake was communicated as high up as the office of the Senior VP of Broadcasting at Scripps, Brian Lawlor. Lawlor stood behind the editorial discretion of the station and refused any request for an apology. As of this date, no one at the station or Scripps will acknowledge that they made a mistake in what they saw. No one has acknowledged the subsequent error in judgment and no one will explain how they could still be citing fears of violating FCC criteria. Criteria that obviously isn’t even relevant.
The station’s coverage of the protest was buried in a thirty second segment and a not so accurate representation of the purpose or numbers present. Scripps has maintained they followed the law in their coverage and to this date has not responded to offers for assistance in better educating stations on ethics and awareness of breastfeeding when future stories arise.
Broadcasting, The First Amendment & Ethics
In a phone conversation, Lawlor, who also serves on the executive boards for the National Association of Broadcasters, the ABC Board of Governors and the Broadcasters Foundation of America, told me that while stations could invest millions challenging any potential fines the FCC might levy, that stations might also decide to simply not cover topics as these in the future. Lawlor communicated that stations had a responsibility to stockholders.
Aside from the false dilemma, it was an unfortunate decision to hear from the company that bears the name of a man who built his empire with Penny Papers so the working class could afford access to the press and reap the benefits of the First Amendment. E.W. Scripps knew the value of turning a profit while insisting there were times journalists had a greater duty to serve the public interest through editorial independence, even if it meant antagonizing their own advertisers.
‘A newspaper fairly and honestly conducted in the interests of the great masses of the public must at all times antagonize the selfish interests of that very class [the advertisers] which furnishes the larger part of a newspaper’s income. It must occasionally so antagonize this class as to cause it not only to cease patronage, to a greater or lesser extent, but to make actually offensive warfare against the newspaper.’ — E.W. Scripps (MacColl, E. Kimbark. The Growth of a City: Power and Politics in Portland, Oregon 1915–1950)
In these days of consolidation, where compensation packages include hundreds of thousands in stock options, one might wonder whose interests are best served when parent companies would rather decline covering stories impacting such a large bulk of their target demographic instead of simply standing up and sending the message without fear that there is nothing indecent or obscene about the nursing breast.
The sentiment Lawlor questioned is echoed by others. Clear Channel’s 700WLW in the same market aired commentary from one host days following the protest that the end result of complaints about coverage would only lead to no coverage at all. The host went on to ridicule those challenging WCPO’s error as little more than “mommy bloggers” with “idle time” too easily offended.
That sexist trope was perceived by many who read WCPO’s online story as well.
By contrast, Scripps competitor, Gannett, ran both an online and a full page print story covering the protest, accurately reflecting the numbers on site, with at least two men interviewed for the article.
“I would venture to say I have consistently watched [WCPO] for the past 15+ years. In fact, I set my DVR to record many of the daily broadcasts…morning, noon, afternoon and 11:00 airings. This way, if I’m busy or don’t catch it live, I can watch it and stay caught up on all things local and national. This situation has been a game changer. After seeing firsthand how insanely one-sided the news can be, by censoring my picture and completely changing the focus of my story, I no longer have faith in this channel.” — Heather DeLisle, a 38 year old married college graduate.
DeLisle is one of the approximately 900,000 viewers WCPO is in competition for in the Cincinnati market. Nielsen ranks the station second in a battle that pits the Scripps’ flagship against leading station WKRC (Sinclair) and third place WLWT (Hearst). A25–54 and W25–54 are still the coveted target of the market and based on the trends in ad revenues (and an upcoming election year), that’s a target demo no station can afford to lose.
According to the Hearst Television Study, more than half of women viewers will seek out the products or services they see advertised during the local news. DeLisle is no exception. When tracking the advertisers and sponsors after the story ran, she discovered she did business with over 75% of them. That’s a decision she’s reconsidering.
She’s not alone. Contrary to the sexist narrative these incidents are just upsetting a “small group of moms”, hundreds of thousands of men and women have been organizing their efforts to hold businesses accountable when negative narratives of breastfeeding based on insinuations of indecency play out.
It was precisely this type of advocacy that led to changes in policy at Facebook. With 77% of women using the platform, the social media giant couldn’t afford to ignore complaints. After a protest in February 2012 and an intense campaign addressing the double standards in how the site was policing pictures of the female body, in 2014, Facebook made changes to their nipple policy, at least in regards to mastectomies and breastfeeding.
For broadcasters, placing blame on the FCC is a scapegoat that doesn’t pass critical thinking. Especially when sexually explicit programs are aired on stations outside of safe harbor hours. A blur of a breastfeeding child and subsequent refusal to own up to an error only reinforces the notion that broadcast outlets would rather further stigmatize families than offer the education the culture needs.
Missing Mr. Rogers
That wasn’t always the case in the industry. A generation ago, when breastfeeding rates were the lowest they’ve ever been in this nation, television programming included breastfeeding education to adults and children. In one of the most notable examples, Mr. Rogers devoted a portion of the program to breastfeeding, showing the entire audience a lactating nipple.
Today, breastfeeding initiation rates far surpass those of the 70’s, with close to 80% of infants starting on the breast. The children who grew up watching Mr. Rogers are attempting to breastfeed their own sons and daughters. But when they turn their local news on, they are told that that kind of activity can’t be shown, because a newsroom can’t tell the difference between a nipple and a thumb.
That sounds far more like an article from the Onion than an educational program licensed to serve the public interest.
Mass Media & The Public Interest
There is little doubt that broadcast news shapes our views. The influence of mass media permeates our understanding of our world and our perception of culture and the mores and norms in our society. We know that local television news is by far still the most trusted source for public issues in communities and around the world and that almost three quarters of adults say it’s an essential part of their lives.
It’s the primary reason the FCC has instituted restrictions to begin with. We put regulation in place because we acknowledge that television is perceived an authority in our homes, intimately engaging us and shaping perspectives. We know that our children are among the most influenced by what’s on screen and with roughly forty million children under the age of ten in families A18+, the responsibility of broadcasters to care for their coverage is paramount in influencing attitudes of generations to come.
“Children as young as two years old were found to have established beliefs about specific brands that were promoted by television advertising and parental behavior. One-year-olds avoided an object after they watched an actress react negatively to it on video, suggesting that infants can apply emotional reactions seen on television to guide their own behavior.” — “Children and Media”, PBS.org
The editorial decision made in that newsroom based on a visual illusion and the refusal to offer correction or rerun the segment, sans edit, meant that men, women and children in a potential 900,000 homes in that market and all accessing the story through the company’s digital platforms as well were left with only one narrative of breastfeeding: That it is inappropriate to view.
That’s the exact stigma National Breastfeeding Month specifically strives to break through. A stigma that is one of many reasons those initiation figures drop to just around a quarter within the first 12 months and even lower after the first year. The stigma that continues to foster harassment and discrimination and violation of state statutes. The stigma the station themselves claimed they wanted to raise awareness against.
If there was ever a case study on just how vital it is to normalize breastfeeding and educate the public on this issue, this editorial decision has to be it. Because clearly the solution is not to continue hiding breastfeeding away under cover from the culture, but rather to encourage exposure, making it far more familiar.
People need to see children breastfeeding. People need to learn exactly what’s happening when a child is latching. People need to set aside their preconceived notion that a woman’s breasts are always sexual and embrace the reality that when over three million children are losing their lives due to hunger, watching one nurse for milk is a far cry from indecency. People need breastfeeding normalized in our society.
That way, when a news room comes across an image of a mother nursing, they won’t embarrass themselves and their audience with a needless edit, all because they couldn’t tell the difference between a nipple and an infant’s appendage.
Instead, they would have seen what so many familiar with the sight of breastfeeding did: Two young boys being tube fed by their mother while their sibling pinches the upper breast she’s latched to — all of them receiving food in love and nothing about it indecent or needing to be covered up.
To reach out to Heather DeLisle for a media interview, contact her here.
Statement from photographer:
“When I do nursing portraits, my goal is always to capture the beauty and love between a mom and her kids and is never to sensationalize breastfeeding or cause a controversy. And with Heather’s portrait I felt I did just that. Baby was latched, boys were being tube fed, and Heather looked proud and radiant. No nipples were shown in the shot I prepared. I would not have used that particular image if it had.
The fact that the news station feels the photograph still needs to be censored makes my blood boil. And as an artist, it makes my blood boil even hotter. Whether or not photography is considered “art” may be up for debate, it is MY art. And to have it censored like that is infuriating. Especially when there is nothing that needs to be censored! This wasn’t just a snapshot of a friend in park who just happened to be there nursing and tube feeding. It was a thought-out, very intentional portrait of what motherhood looks like for her.” — Lauren Carson, Drawing in Light Photography
*Disclosure: Grattan was a contracted vendor with Scripps until Friday, August 14, 2015. The vendor partnership ended, at Grattan’s request, in light of the statements from a Scripps property that the nipple a child was nursing from could be deemed indecent.
This piece also published on Medium.