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How to Evaluate Bias and the Messages in Photos

Susan Moeller's picture

Can you tell if a news outlet, an NGO or a government is picturing a person, an event or an issue fairly?  It can be very hard to assess visual “balance” when photos are scattered across a website, and appear sporadically over a span of time.  There may be an anecdotal impression that there is bias, but visual bias has been very difficult to document.

The social media site Pinterest is now making documentation possible.

Have you heard of Pinterest?  According to the site itself, it’s “a Virtual Pinboard” that lets users “organize and share all the beautiful things you find on the web. People use pinboards to plan their weddings, decorate their homes, and organize their favorite recipes.”  Doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of site that would help journalists or academics, governments or NGOs, does it?  But Pinterest is turning out to be a stealth tool for researchers.

Pinterest allows its users to grab a photo from any online site and “pin” that photo to a specifically designated “board.”  In essence, users are able to aggregate photos from multiple web pages to the same visual space, and make assessments from the patterns and trends that then become apparent. 

Consider PrezPix, a study just released by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA).  It evaluated 8,780 photographs published by 21 major American news outlets over four months of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign.  (Full disclosure:  I led the study.)

Using Pinterest, researchers from ICMPA and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park collected over 5500 photographs of Pres. Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney over a three-week span of time, during the height of the fall election, during the weeks of September 17 – 23, October 1 – 7 and 15 – 21.  The study also used Pinterest this past spring to gather over 3200 photographs of the four major Republican challengers —Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum — published during the height of the primary election season, from February 25 through March 25, 2012.  In each case, researchers pinned all the candidates’ pictures on a given day and aggregated them on publication-specific Pinterest boards.

Using SurveyMonkey, an online survey tool, researchers then analyzed those boards and images to see trends in how online news outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox News, CNN, Huffington Post, Politico, NPR and USA Today, visually portrayed Pres. Obama and Gov. Romney and each of the GOP candidates. 

Two key findings from PrezPix:  During the fall election campaign, the news outlets in the study published more photos of Romney than of Obama.  But more coverage of Romney did not necessarily mean more “positive” coverage.  The outlets, taken as a whole, published proportionately more “positive” photos of Obama.  Obama was pictured smiling more often, engaged with the public more often, depicted in more diverse settings, with more diverse audiences.

ICMPA researchers found Pinterest a very efficient tool, even despite the huge quantity of photographs published daily by the news outlets.  Other photo sharing sites, such as Flickr, Yogile and Facebook, all require additional steps for posting, aggregating and linking photos back to their original sources – steps possible for a study of just a few images, but too time-consuming and tedious for large studies of hundreds or thousands of images.

But the ease of aggregation was not Pinterest’s only benefit for the PrezPix study.  Pinterest allows for a high degree of transparency:  once a photo is pinned to a Pinterest board, a viewer can click on the pin and that “click” takes the viewer back to the originating source.  Such a functionality allows casual viewers as well as other evaluators to see and assess the context for the originating photo.  (There are some hiccups how Pinterest performs, however. See here for a page that summarizes some of those.)

Another advantage of Pinterest is that it has an infinite scroll.  Although the ICMPA researchers analyzed each of the 8,000-plus election photos one by one to determine tone (among other considerations), the Pinterest boards also make it possible to see all the photos pinned to a board at once.  Online visitors to websites usually see individual photos on their own on a website, so it can be difficult to consciously take in what messages might be being sent over a span of time, or across multiple sites.  Only when one can see all the photographs published on a topic gathered together in a single group, is it possible to comprehend that there are messages that are coming through — sometimes subtlety, sometimes very powerfully.

Is a poverty program always showing the needy as children, rather than as adults, or as women rather than men?  Is a news outlet’s coverage of one candidate always showing that candidate smiling, while the opposition candidate is always shown scowling?  That’s the immediate value of Pinterest: by pinning photos to Pinterest, researchers both inside and outside an organization can see at a glance what is being shown. 

Right now the home page of Pinterest is all about pictures of cute kittens, mouth-watering cookies and swirling dresses.  But behind those lifestyle photos there is room for more serious images needing more serious reflection.

Photo Credit: International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA), University of Maryland

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