RESEARCH • The Politics of Photos


Images of a Presidential Campaign

This AP photo of the president kissing the first lady is from an August campaign stop in Iowa. From Politico, Oct. 2, 2012.

PrezPix, a study from ICMPA and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, analyzed how online news outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox News, CNN, Huffington Post, Politico, NPR and USA Today, visually portrayed the 2012 presidential election.

Researchers 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.  They 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.

In an election all about demographics, the photos of the fall 2012 presidential campaign foretold the ultimate story.  ICMPA’s PrezPix study documented how positively the news media pictured Pres. Obama.  

PrezPix also documented just how visibly broad a base President Obama attracted.   Repeatedly the photos from the presidential campaign 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.*

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.

Here are 8 additional findings from the study:

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.
Mitt Romney in the foreground of the second presidential debate in New York. Published in the New York Times, Oct. 18, 2012
  1. 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.   
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
  1. 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 howFox News handled the images, and here for howUSA Today did.
  1. The presidential debates dramatically changed the visual tone and look of the fall election.
    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.  Although the president’s “positive” photographic ratings did not substantially weaken as his poll numbers did, researchers saw a gradual rebalancing of the tone of coverage of both Obama and Romney following the president’s weak performance in the first debate.
    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.
    See here  for details on individual news outlets.  
Mitt Romney and his wife, the day before Super Tuesday primaries. Published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, March 5, 2012
  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.  
    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.
Rick Santorum, on stage at a rally in Oklahoma. Published on CBS News,  March 4, 2012
  1. 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.
Newt Gingrich speaking about his energy plan.  Published on NPR,  Feb. 26, 2012
  1. 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.
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
  1. 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.

See the PrezPix research study website for the following:

  • See specifics on the study site about how Pres. Obama, Gov. Romney and the GOP challengers fared in the photographic coverage.
  • Look at how the 21 ‘News Outlets‘ studied individually covered the candidates.
  • 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.
  • Browse other conclusions under the ‘Key Findings‘ section on the website.
  • See 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….”