On scorecard, photo choices don’t add up to bias
By ERNIE GATES | STARS AND STRIPES OMBUDSMAN Published: March 8, 2012
In any presidential election year, every news outlet gets more than the usual scrutiny for signs of spin and partisanship. That’s natural: Elections are about choosing sides, and the question of every election year is “Whose side are you on?”
The long and lively Republican primary process has given Stars and Stripes an early start on that scrutiny, with much more to follow when the presidential election itself begins.
For example, Colleen Bishop, of Camp Zama, Japan, took special notice of photos and editorial cartoons depicting President Barack Obama and the GOP primary candidates. Here’s the gist of her email to the ombudsman: “After looking at another sour-faced picture of Mitt Romney, I started wondering why S&S seems to put so many sour-faced pictures of Republicans in their news. … (S)houldn’t there be a better balance between the negative Republican images and the positive Democrat images?”
A fair question. I decided to look at the photos published in February and see what the scorecard would say.
The raw numbers — the times the president and each candidate appeared — track the news. Obama appears the most, and Republican candidates tally up in the same order as they’ve performed in the primaries: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and then Ron Paul.
But before I lay out the details, let me describe how I kept score. I soon gave up on keeping a “sour-face index,” because it became clear that whether a candidate’s expression was negative or positive probably depended on the eye of the beholder. Take the photos played side by side on Feb. 22 and Feb. 28. Was Santorum’s face angry or resolute? Was Romney’s expression stunned or confident?
And when it came to the editorial cartoons, nobody looked attractive. Whether it’s a big-eared Obama or a moon-faced Gingrich, political caricatures are unflattering. One candidate escaped, but only because no Ron Paul cartoons ran in February.
So I simplified my scorecard: Total photos, total cartoons, total appearances and the number of “blank” days with neither photo nor cartoon. The numbers are in this chart:
(If your browser was unable to display the chart, see the version at the bottom of the page.)
On only one day — Wednesday, Feb. 8 — was there no photo or cartoon showing any of them.
The pattern in the chart doesn't show bias. It shows news judgment. Photo choices are part of a news report that culls and ranks the events of the day, not a ballot on which every candidate should get the same space and attention.
I understand Bishop’s point, though. For example, on Sunday, Feb. 12 (in the week she was monitoring), Romney and Santorum are depicted in photos from their speeches at the Conservative Political Action Committee event. What face were they showing the CPAC crowd? Tough? Steadfast? Sour? On the opposite page was a smiling photo of Obama at a press conference.
But that contrast wasn’t the norm. Across the month of photos, I saw smart, fair efforts to portray the GOP candidates in action during a very competitive campaign — gesticulating in a rally speech, shaking hands with supporters, confronting a debate opponent. And, though Obama’s news photos were seldom in such contentious settings, they were also seldom in the “happy president” mode of that Feb. 12 photo.
Considering the shifting fortunes of the candidates under front-runner Romney, the comparative frequency of photos of Santorum, Gingrich and Paul is not surprising. Santorum surged and overtook Gingrich in February as the leading alternative to Romney. Paul has been an alternative to them all — but a relative footnote in the results. Still, I would say four photos are too few for a candidate who has been a steady and surviving presence in the campaign.
Stripes Assistant Managing Editor Brian Bowers, who supervises the desk where photos and stories are selected, has been in the business since the Reagan administration, so he’s seen both parties in and out of power. He understands that readers are on the watch for favoritism. He says everybody is tuned to the need for balance as they put together the daily report.
News from the GOP primaries has peaks and lulls, but the president — any president — can make news at will. And with news comes photo ops, so the desk is careful not to run a photo of Obama with every story about a White House initiative or public appearance. “They watch how many Obama photos they use, as a matter of balance,” Bowers says.
Brooks E. Bowers (no relation to Brian) is the editor who chooses editorial cartoons, among other duties (including editing this column). He selects 12-15 cartoons per week, most of which (as the scorecard shows) have no direct connection with the president or the primary candidates. When a candidate cartoon is in order, he says, “The content is more important than how they look. The key is how it advances the substantive issue.”
Whether it’s elections or issues, his goal is to balance the mix, especially in the five-cartoon gallery that runs every Saturday. “If one really slams the right or the left, I definitely have a counterbalance,” he says.
A long, long season of campaign coverage remains, and questions of balance and fairness are bound to come up regularly from readers. The closer to Election Day, the more pointed those questions will become. I look forward to a running conversation on the subject.
It appears to me that the Stars and Stripes newsroom is up to the challenge.
Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to email@example.com, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.
Candidate sightings in February