RESEARCH • Toxic Photos


Picturing the 2016 Election • The Battle in Images

Split screen image of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on The New York Times, Sept. 25, 2016

PrezPix2016, 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 2016 presidential election.

In an update of ICMPA’s study of the photos of the 2012 US presidential campaign, researchers once again used Pinterest to gather images of the election, then coded the photographs with the help of  Overall, researchers collected and analyzed over 5200 photographs of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, at the height of the fall election, during the weeks of the three presidential debates. 

“Visual journalists operate as trustees of the public. Our primary role is to report visually on the significant events and varied viewpoints in our common world. Our primary goal is the faithful and comprehensive depiction of the subject at hand.”
– National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics

According to the latest study of photographs of a US presidential campaign by ICMPA, during the fall of 2016, photo coverage of Trump was significantly higher than that of Hillary Clinton across almost every news outlet.

Researchers documented that of the approximately 5,200 images collected from 21 news outlets, more than 3,000 images featured Trump compared to the roughly 2,000 images that pictured Clinton.

But, researchers found that Clinton was pictured in a more flattering poses than was Trump across those same majority of news outlets.

In such a contentious election, researchers were also bemused to see that many outlets favored photographs that showed both candidates together:  either on stage for the debates, or via “manufactured” split-screen images.

Sometimes having both candidates in a single image was, in essence,  a journalistic trick to signal a rather trivial “balance” in coverage, as the two candidates were given equal photographic real estate and often shown making similar faces and/or gestures.

Other times, images with both candidates in them were used to suggest conflict  — as for example when media outlets use photos where the candidates appeared to be glaring at each other.

Either way, the photos mattered.

Donald Trump hovering behind Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate made him appear strong to some — and creepy to others. / The Washington Post / Oct. 10, 2016

In today’s digital environment, news outlets recognize the powerful draw of photographs — an observation backed up by studies that show many readers never “read” much of the news, they just “look” at the visuals.

Photos are a “fast” way to assess what is happening.  Yet the inherently subjective nature of photographs means that photos — especially simple ones — are in essence the political cartoons of today’s digital age.  (And the trend of posting live gifs and memes of politicians and political events are today’s vaudeville.)  Photos of political candidates have become less aesthetic “filler” on a page, than visual commentaries on the candidates.

Whether intentionally or not, photos are neatly wrapped packages for sending sophisticated messages about what they picture.

What is the duty of the news media in publishing pictures of presidential candidates?

Voters interpret and understand candidates and issues in part through the images of them.  Deciding what photos to publish becomes an ethical consideration.

News outlets often published split screen images of both candidates during the debates and tried to make them seem parallel in facial expression and gestures. / CNN / Oct. 19, 2016

Widespread public distrust of both major party candidates and the media as a whole significantly affected the 2016 election cycle and media’s choice of photos. Those sentiments led to a number of ethical issues that came up for photojournalists i, not least of all that news outlets were covering a female major party presidential candidate for the first time and struggling with ethical questions about gender representation in the photo selection process.

Entertainment news outlets such as  Buzzfeed and satire shows such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver were faced with different ethical challenges than traditional media. Truth and facts can be important, but presenting information in the most unbiased way is rarely a priority for comedy and entertainment news. While partisan coverage is increasingly popular among Millennials, the inherent biases in coverage of the candidates created an echo chamber for viewers who agree and alienated those who didn’t.

“There is nothing inherently wrong with media that has a viewpoint. This show has a viewpoint. We fact-check everything we say, but I don’t pretend to be neutral on things. … But a healthy media diet has to be broader than that.”
– John Oliver, Nov. 13, 2016

Trump’s victory shocked many who predicted a landslide Clinton win. To remain as ethical and as unbiased as possible, news outlets should ask themselves how they are selecting their photos. While bias is not always avoidable, journalists must continually work toward transparency and objectivity in order to fulfill their most important responsibilities as watchdogs of government and the educators of an informed public.