The Politics of Photos — Images of a Presidential Campaign

A “TOP TEN” positive photo of Barack Obama and his wife Michelle.
Click here to see the slideshow.
This AP photo of the president kissing the first lady is from an August campaign stop in Iowa. From Politico, Oct. 2, 2012.

In an election all about demographics, the photos of the campaign foretold the ultimate story, according to PrezPix, a 2012 study from ICMPA that evaluated 8,780 photographs published by 21 major American news outlets over four months of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign.

Using photos pinned to the social media outlet Pinterest, PrezPix documented just how broad a base President Obama attracted.   Repeatedly the photos showed Obama talking to and wading among groups of diverse supporters — college students, women, factory workers, Latinos, African Americans — all images that reinforced his position as the president of the “47 percent” and more.*

The PrezPix study also documented how positively the media pictured Pres. Obama and his wife. In an election where women, minority and youth voters played the deciding roles, the photos of Obama and his wife specifically addressed all three of those core demographics.  Again and again the photos pinned to Pinterest showed the couple as friends, as intimates, as having fun — all powerfully subliminal messages about the character of the president.   

In an AP photo, Romney and his wife, Ann, work on their iPads on the campaign bus as it travels to Hialeah, Florida, in Jan. 2012. From the Washington Post, Oct. 19, 2012.

By contrast the photos of Gov. Romney and his wife showed the couple as more formal, more businesslike, more respectful — positive traits, but not adding substantively to what voters saw of just Romney himself.

The PrezPix study used Pinterest to collect over 5500 photographs of Pres. Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney over a three-week span of time, during the height of the fall election, during the weeks of September 17 – 23, October 1 – 7 and 15 – 21.  

The study also used Pinterest to gather over 3200 photographs of the four major Republican challengers —Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum — published over a one-month span of time, during the height of the primary election season from February 25 through March 25, 2012.

Researchers from the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park, then analyzed the thousands of images to determine how online news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, Fox News and CNN, Huffington Post and Politico, NPR and USA Today, visually portrayed each of the GOP candidates during the spring primaries, and Pres. Obama and Gov. Romney in the fall general election.  

Take a look at some of the major PrezPix findings below.

  • Then browse other conclusions under the ‘Key Findings‘ tab up above.  Note that there are several pages nested, including ones that detail how the photos were coded and why photos matter.
  • Click on the candidates’ names in the tabs up above to see specifics about how Pres. Obama, Gov. Romney and the GOP challengers fared in the photographic coverage.
  • Click on the ‘News Outlets‘ tab to see pages dedicated to the 21 news outlets studied.
  • And visit PrezPix’s Pinterest page to see all the photos that were assessed.  From the photos gathered on Pinterest’s boards (see the screen grab right), visitors can click through to the originating images as they were used by the news outlets.

Here are 10 surprising facts from the study:

  1. Barack Obama on the campaign trail two days after the first “lackluster” presidential debate. Published in ABC News, Oct. 5, 2012

    Across news outlets, Obama was pictured more “positively” than Romney.  The news outlets published fewer photos overall of Obama than Romney, but Obama was pictured smiling more often, engaged with the public more often, in more diverse settings, with more diverse audiences. He even came out ahead (slightly) in photographs the week of the first presidential debate — the one he “lost” according to most polls. See here  for a breakdown of how individual news outlets covered Obama and Romney.

Mitt Romney, pictured in The Daily Beast, Feb. 28, 2012

  1. Romney was pictured more often than Obama, and much more often than his GOP primary opponents.  If one just considers the numbers, Romney came out ahead.  So if media attention is a good thing, then Mitt Romney led a charmed life compared to his political opponents. In both the 2012 presidential primaries and the September/October general election, mainstream news outlets published more photos of Romney than of his competitors. See here for more.
  1. Mitt Romney in the foreground of the second presidential debate in New York. Published in the New York Times, Oct. 18, 2012

    But more attention to Romney did not always translate to more positive attention.  Mitt Romney was almost universally the media darling during the spring GOP primaries — he was pictured smiling more often, engaged with the public more often, backed by the American flag more often.  But come the fall, Romney’s “positives” were not as high as Obama’s —neither at the start of the fall general election campaign following the weak bounce from the Republican National Convention, the distraction of the Clint Eastwood “chair” speech and the leak of the “47 percent” video, nor even after the first debates. See here  for more on the primaries and here  for more on the general election.

  1. A split-screen of photos from the second presidential debate when Michelle Obama and Ann Romney wore nearly identical outfits. Huffington Post. Oct. 16, 2012

    Following the presidential debates, extensive use of split-screen images across news outlets helped the photographic coverage become more even-handed.  As the polls tracking the battle for the White House became closer in October, news outlets more carefully pictured the candidates and many managed that balance by repeatedly running split-screen images of both candidates (or photos that literally showed both candidates in one frame) to illustrate an “on one hand, but on the other” approach to the coverage.  See here for how Fox News handled the images, and here for how USA Today did.

  1. Romney and Obama facing off during the second presidential debate. Published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Oct. 16, 2012

    The presidential debates dramatically changed the visual tone and look of the fall election.  Although the president’s “positive” photographic ratings did not substantially weaken as his poll numbers did, researchers did see a gradual rebalancing of the tone of coverage of both Obama and Romney following the president’s weak performance in the first debate.  By the week of the second presidential debate the two candidates were pictured roughly equally, with a similar percentage of images coded as “positive,” “neutral” and “negative.”  See here  for details on individual news outlets.

    The debates also changed the “look” of the photographic coverage.  For many news outlets, photos from the debates accounted for half (or more) of the images of Obama and Romney for those weeks.  The photographic coverage of each debate segued into week-long Groundhog Days of coverage as the debate pictures were recycled to illustrate the non-stop analysis and commentary stories. To learn more, click on the links to the individual news outlets, such as the Denver Post, home to the first presidential debate.

Headline: ‘Obama not having fun’ — Photo from first presidential debate, published one day afterwards, in Politico, Oct. 4, 2012

Graph from RealClearPolitics of polling trend lines from Sept. 17, 2012, the start of the general election phase of the PrezPix study, to Oct. 21, the end. Note the drop off of Pres. Obama’s polling numbers after the Oct. 3 debate.

  1. Photographic coverage of President Barack Obama remained strongly positive following the first October presidential debate.

Despite Obama’s precipitous drop in the polls after the October 3 debate in Denver, news outlets around the country did not go negative on the president, PrezPix researchers found.

The real change in the photographic portrait of the race for the presidency in October was the decrease in negative photos of Gov. Mitt Romney, and a general move towards greater parity in the tone of coverage.

  1. During the spring primaries, Romney appeared together with supporters (and his wife) more often than his GOP opponents.  But in the fall, Obama appeared more often with supporters than Romney.  

    Mitt Romney, pictured with his wife, the day before Super Tuesday primaries. Published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, March 5, 2012

    PrezPix researchers determined that a “positive” photo is more than just a flattering picture of a candidate smiling. In an election where voter demographics matter tremendously, who the candidates are pictured with may matter as much as an upbeat expression.

During the primaries, images showing Romney with his wife at his side reinforced his image as a family man, while photos of him surrounded by crowds of supporters bolstered his position as the front-runner. During the start of the general election campaign, photos showing Obama wading into groups of diverse supporters — college students, women, factory workers, Latinos, African Americans, seniors— bolstered his position as the president of the “47 percent.”  See here  for more.

  1. Rick Santorum, on stage at a rally in Oklahoma. Published on CBS News,  March 4, 2012

    Rick Santorum: Pictured positively, but less often and less positively than Romney.  Researchers evaluating the news outlets in the spring PrezPix study coded most photos of Rick Santorum as “positive.” But they also noted that he appeared alone in the majority of the photographs of the GOP primaries. Many sites used photos that were simply head shots of Santorum at a podium and those could, at times, make him appear visionary. Yet although it was clear Santorum was addressing an audience on most of those occasions, the relative dearth of photos of Santorum directly interacting with supporters — even if the images of him mingling that did appear were almost uniformly positive — contributed to the visual framing of Santorum as less engaged with the public than photographs of Mitt Romney showed him as being.   See here  for more.

  1. Newt Gingrich speaking about his energy plan.  Published on NPR,  Feb. 26, 2012

    Newt Gingrich: Alone on stage.  The 18 news outlets evaluated in the spring PrezPix study most often posted photos of Gingrich alone, at a podium, set apart from the general public, standing stiff and distant. Newt Gingrich’s dwindling legitimacy was reflected as well in the limited photographic coverage of him during the February and March primaries. Researchers pinned on average 25 photos of Gingrich from each of the 18 news outlets in this study, significantly fewer than the average number of those pinned for Mitt Romney (78) and Rick Santorum (57). See here  for more.

  1. Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich watch as Rick Santorum speaks during a Republican presidential debate, Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Arizona.  Published in the Washington Post, March 1, 2012

    Who is Ron Paul?  He (almost) never showed up in photos.  The news outlets evaluated during the February 25 to March 25 GOP primary season paid little attention to Ron Paul’s candidacy. Only four outlets published more than twenty images of Paul during that time that researchers could find and pin — ABC, Huffington Post, Politico and the Washington Post — and 11 outlets published fewer than 10 photos of him during that month-long period that included Super Tuesday. When photos of Paul did appear in news outlets, news outlets often pictured him as just one candidate in a group shot (or split-screen image) with the other GOP contenders. And even in those images he rarely appeared as powerful or as charismatic as the other candidates; his facial expressions and body language made him appear less vigorous than Romney, less confident than Gingrich, less likable than Santorum.  See here  for more.

Headline: ‘Obamas celebrate 20th anniversary’ — Photo published one day before the first presidential debate, in Politico, Oct. 2, 2012

  1. Photos are the way that online news consumers access the news —Pinterest is an unmatched platform for aggregating and watchdogging news photos.  Recent eye-tracking studies from Poynter have found that online readers “enter a screen through a dominant element, generally a photograph. Faces in photographs and videos [attract] a lot of attention.” Once seen, photos are subconsciously evaluated. Yet the inherently subjective nature of photographs means that photos — especially simple ones — are in essence the political cartoons of today’s digital age. Whether intentionally or not, photos are neatly wrapped packages for sending sophisticated messages about what they picture.

Watchdog sites for political ads and campaign contributions exist, but until Pinterest, it has been too difficult to evaluate photos, especially in anything approaching real time. With the advent of Pinterest, coding of images remains time-consuming and rather subjective, but digital tools are making the surveying possible, and the evaluation of the data fast. The signal advantage of using Pinterest is transparency. Pinned photographs link back to their original locations and audience members can evaluate the “raw” images for themselves. In an era of open data, when increasingly researchers and journalists need information to be online, searchable and mashable, Pinterest is a valuable research tool. See here for more on Pinterest and here for more on why photos matter.

According to exit polling from the New York Times, “Obama won 60 percent of the 18 to 29 year old vote… 93 percent of the black vote and more than 70 percent of both the Asian vote and the Hispanic vote. He won over half of the female vote…. Mitt Romney won the white vote, the male vote, the elderly vote….”

Header photos:  Click for links to Pinterest:  Gingrich from ABC/AP, Santorum from CBS/AP, Ron Paul from ABC/AP, Barack Obama from Huffington Post, Mitt Romney from Huffington Post/AP.  The university-based ICMPA and student researchers are grateful for the fair use of the photographs reproduced on this site for evaluation.