Bias in Newspaper Photograph Selection

By Barrett, Andrew W.; Barrington, Lowell W. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Bias in Newspaper Photograph Selection


Barrett, Andrew W., Barrington, Lowell W., Political Research Quarterly


Previous research has shown that visual images of political candidates can influence voter perceptions. This study examines newspaper photographs of candidates to determine whether the favorableness of these pictures is related to the "political atmosphere" of individual newspapers. In particular, we examine 435 candidate photographs from several races covered by seven newspapers during the 1998 and 2002 general election seasons. Based on our analysis, we conclude that candidates endorsed by a particular newspaper-or whose political leanings match the political atmosphere of a given paper-generally have more favorable photographs of them published than their opponents.

On the morning of April 30, 2002, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published at the top of the front page two large, side-by-side photographs of the candidates vying for the office of Milwaukee County Executive in a special election that day. In the first photograph, a confident-looking Jim Ryan looks a potential voter in the eye as he shakes his hand. In the second picture, Scott Walker is seen giving an awkward thumps-up sign to the same potential voter with his eyes closed and his chin on his chest. To any impartial observer, the Ryan photograph is much more flattering than the picture of Walker.

By themselves, these two photographs on the morning of the election might not be cause for concern. However, these contrasting pictures followed a month in which the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran numerous editorials about the race which either had a strongly pro-Ryan slant or outright endorsed him.1 This incident raises important questions about the selection of candidate photographs by newspapers. Was the front-page placement of a favorable Ryan photograph next to an unfavorable picture of his opponent an extension of the pro-Ryan editorial stance over the previous month? If so, do these two pictures reflect a broader, underlying-and grossly under-examined-tendency for candidate photographs to reinforce newspaper editorial and endorsement positions, or do they represent an isolated incident?

This study seeks answers to these questions by examining whether the "political atmosphere" of various newspapers leads to discernible differences in the favorableness of photographs of political candidates. We test a hypothesis of bias at the level of the media outlet by examining 435 candidate photographs from a sample of U.S. Senate, gubernatorial, and local races from seven newspapers during the 1998 and 2002 general election seasons. We conclude that the favorableness of candidate photographs differs, often markedly, and that these differences are related to a given newspaper's political atmosphere.

RELEVANT LITERATURE

Over the past few decades, scholars have produced substantial evidence that the media can help create and/or shape perceptions of political figures (Dalton, Beck, and Huckfedlt 1998; Covington et al. 1993; Patterson 1993; Graber 1972). McCombs et al. (1997), for example, found a link between newspaper and television news coverage and Spanish voters' images of candidates during the 1995 regional and municipal elections in Spain. Likewise, King (1997: 40) discovered that "the press significantly contributed to the construction of candidate images in the heads of the voters" during the 1994 Taipei mayoral election.

Most studies concerned with the media's impact on mass attitudes and voter perceptions focus on text and/or verbal messages (e.g., Bystrom, Robertson, and Banwart 2001; Niven 1999; Dalton, Beck, and Huckfeldt 1998; Domke et al. 1997; Mutz 1992). But beyond these written and verbal messages, newspapers, newsmagazines, television news broadcasts, and the internet also provide news consumers with visual images. These visuals can be influential. Studies from a variety of disciplines have uncovered strong evidence that visual images influence peoples attitudes and ability to learn about individuals, events, and issues (Gilliam and Iyengar 2000; Palvio 1991; Graber 1987; Nisbett and Ross 1980), and that nonverbal cues can be much more important than verbal ones in affecting assessments of other individuals (Argyle, Alkema, and Gilmour 1971). …

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