Of the many ways that the media exhibit bias, two of the most difficult to talk about are story selection and photo selection. Story selection is when the media choose to run certain stories over other stories. At the beginning of December, for instance, the Washington Post ran more than a dozen breathless stories about a low-level Capitol Hill staffer insulting the First Family on her Facebook page. That shows bias in story selection.
Rarely do viewers and readers think about photo selection bias even though it’s a major issue for many stories. When reporting a news or feature, photo departments might have dozens, hundreds or even thousands of photos to choose from. Figuring out the right one is part art and part science. But it’s a dangerous area for bias.
An article on the Center for Journalism Ethics website at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says:
Pictures are worth 1,000 words – in the newspaper business that equals about 25 inches of print. Images are one of the most powerful forms of communication, especially in journalism. One image or sound can summarize an event or person or motivate a nation; one image can upset people more than endless pages of print on the subject. Kenneth F. Irby from the Poynter Institute describes photojournalism as “the craft of employing photographic storytelling to document life: it is universal and transcends cultural and language bounds.”
The choice of what image to use or not use to tell a story is one of the most important decisions newspaper editors have to make. And they frequently make these decisions multiple times a day. When picking photos of a young black man shot by a white man, do you use the photo of the victim goofing around with friends and looking tough or the photo of his recent high school graduation? When picking a photo to accompany an article about war, do you show a picture of a wounded soldier or wounded insurgents? A few years ago the Washington Post ran an Associated Press photo on its front page that depicted a Palestinian man holding the body of his dead infant. Supporters of Israel were irate that such an emotionally charged photo would be used. The caption blamed an Israeli rocket for the death. A few days later the photo caption was corrected to note that it was a misfired Palestinian rocket that was actually to blame.
When choosing photos to accompany a feature profile of a politician, it’s hard to set aside biases. The politicians that a journalist is pulling for might expect to see more flattering photos. The politicians journalists hate might expect the opposite treatment. Human nature being what it is, fighting this subtle bias battle is probably a losing enterprise.
But there are times when people take it too far. Newsweek’s photo selection for a cover story on Sarah Palin was incredibly demeaning, ridiculously so. They literally picked an old photo from a shoot for a runner’s magazine and paired it with the ditzy and snarky headline “How do you solve a problem like Sarah?” Newsweek’s photo selection for a cover story on Michele Bachmann made her appear to have “crazy eyes.” Newsweek editors added the very subtle headlined “The Queen of Rage” just to make sure to display that special loathing for conservative women that the media are known for. It was shockingly stereotypical. Slate called it sexist.
It looks like Politico wanted to join Newsweek in the sexist hall of shame. The publication took it too far with the photo used to illustrate a feature of Iowa’s new Republican Senator Joni Ernst. Ernst is incredibly photogenic, whether she’s wearing her Army National Guard uniform, a business suit or casual dress. She is the first woman to represent Iowa in the United States Congress and the first female veteran in the U.S. Senate. She was a company commander in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Her most recent political opponent tried to deride her as being too pretty and nice. She was supposed to lose the race, or maybe win it in a nail-biter, but she ended up winning the seat by eight points.
She’s called for reduction in government’s size and scope, is pro-life, and a supporter of gun rights. And for these sins, she gets the ‘crazy eyes’ treatment!
It’s funny, if you just do a Google image search, it’s hard to find a bad photo of Ernst. But look at the photo Politico chose for her. They chose a photo that made her look wacky. Close-in crop at maximum size so you can see every pore, every bit of make-up, eyes that look nothing like any other picture we’ve seen of her. And seriously guys, it’s tiring. Women who aren’t far-left know the media hate us. They’re not exactly subtle about it. But sometimes it just goes too far.
When choosing photos to illustrate a story, editors should make sure to look for and do their best to avoid their biases in the story and be sensitive to stereotypes. The stereotype the media has been pushing for women who do not share their political views is beyond tiresome and it’s time to grow up.