Photographers Try to Avoid Staged Moments: 'Political Operatives Use Increasingly Sophisticated Techniques to Give Candidates the Most Favorable Media Exposure Possible'

By Rios, Luis | Nieman Reports, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Photographers Try to Avoid Staged Moments: 'Political Operatives Use Increasingly Sophisticated Techniques to Give Candidates the Most Favorable Media Exposure Possible'


Rios, Luis, Nieman Reports


These days it is difficult to find anything but flattering photographs of any Democratic presidential candidate in the newspaper. Hugging babies, kissing grandmas, and flashing the proverbial thumbs up make up the daily collection of photographs filed from the campaign trail. But are these images as spontaneous and genuine as they appear to be?

The answer is no. Political operatives use increasingly sophisticated techniques to give candidates the most favorable media exposure possible. And the result is a lessening of the credibility that newspapers can offer readers in accurately portraying who the candidates are and what their campaigns are about. The ubiquitous "photo-op" images make this problem more transparent and troubling.

Ever since President Ronald Reagan's circle of media advisors set out to transform events into carefully choreographed visual experiences, rarely does any major candidate appear without an advance team having prestaged the location. By the time the candidate arrives with the press photographers, there are strategically placed placards with catchy slogans and either a huge American flag or lots of smaller flags in place, and the effect is amplified by lighting professionals. This preparation makes it nearly impossible to avoid emerging from the event with an image the campaign wants to convey.

In most cases, campaign handlers are there to advise photographers about what the "throw," or the distance from their shooting positions to the candidate, will be. Handlers have even told photographers before they get to their assigned spot how long of a lens will be necessary from that position. In some cases, certain photographers are granted predetermined, strategic positions away from the pen where other photographers are stationed.

In fairness, candidates do make impromptu stops and visits in the frenzy of the daily campaign. And these spontaneous moments, these candid slices of life, make for better documentary photographs. But at the end of a reporting day, when most newspaper editors need to make decisions about what the paper's political coverage is going to look like, these more candid pictures usually don't win out over the more elaborate, well-crafted photo op from a scheduled campaign stop where a speech was made or a major rally held.

The impact that news photography has on readers is as vital to a newspaper's mission as are the words its reporters write. When editors make decisions day after day to publish photographs that are conspicuously photo ops, over time they send a message to readers about the kind of images they think worthy of publication. Such a cavalier approach to the photo editing process strikes at the integrity of the newspaper.

The Photo-Op Dilemma

Of course, there will be days when the only photograph relevant to the news story of the day is limited to a photo op. Then the decision isn't difficult. "If it is the only photo you have, you go with it," said Joe Elbert, assistant managing editor/photography at The Washington Post. "However, the burden is on us [as editors] to be more discriminating about the photo selection." Yet as Elbert acknowledged, the constant deadline pressures and daily demands on photo editors to produce relevant, newsworthy images can leave little or no time for meaningful discussions regarding the photographs' impact on readers. Elbert refuses to publish photographs from staged events; the Post does not have a full-time White House photographer and covers the White House only when heads of state visit Washington. Elbert said that the newspaper mostly relies on the major news services to determine what it will use in its daily campaign photo coverage.

There is one question that at some time most newspapers will have to deal with: How does a photo editor--or more importantly, a newspaper--address the ethical dilemma presented by a "must have" photograph when the editor knows it is nothing more than a "photo op" that puts the candidate in a favorable light? …

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