A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words ... Even If It's Out Of Context
One of the first impressions many voters had of last Wednesday's final debate was of the facial expressions and body language of the candidates. According to political analysts, Senator Obama often looked tense; Senator McCain alternated between signs of exasperation and a fixed smile.
The day after the debate, our senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, made the point that the judgments about how the candidates looked do affect voters. He said:
"Part of the problem, of course, is what you see on television is not exactly what's happening on stage. What you see on television is often the result of either a one-shot, where they show you one of the two men without the other, and you don't really have a sense of how close anyone might be to him. And then there is the two shot, the split-screen, when you can actually watch the reactions on the face of the candidate who is not speaking. And that is a fairly interesting and sometimes devastating way to watch a debate.
I think everyone recalls who saw the 2000 debates between George Bush and Al Gore, that if you listened on radio or watched strictly the one-shots, you got one impression.
But if you saw the split-screen, you saw Al Gore rolling his eyes and looking heavenward and making a lot of other gestures that people thought were disrespectful and maybe a little bit bush league. That hurt, in that particular case Al Gore more than it hurt George Bush.
So, in the debate last night, a lot of those two-shots, those split-screens showed John McCain looking angry, showed him looking very irritated, showed him looking upset, and staring over what appeared to be the next head just inches away even though the two were seated at opposite sides of a rather large table."
Now a new photo of Senator McCain from Wednesday's debate — a photo that became one of the most emailed and most popular on Yahoo News — is reinvigorating the debate over what the eyes see versus what the ears hear.
Here in our office, we spent quite a bit of time working to verify the photo. Members of our show staff, political staff, and research library staff all tried to see if it was real, or a Photoshopped image.
The reality is intriguing. The image is, in fact, real ... but it is also out of context.
If you go to YouTube and look roughly at 4:30 on the time clock on this clip of the debate, you will see a VERY brief different angle on Senator McCain doing what he did in the photo.
When I say brief, I mean perhaps 3 seconds, and the gesture was clearly a quick sign that he did not know precisely where to go on stage. In the video version, he is not in any way interacting with Senator Obama, and the moment is brief and easy to miss.
(Many thanks to a member of NPR's Reference Library staff, Katie Daugert, for tracking down the moment in the video; and to Day to Day staffer Jolie Meyers for finding the original photo.)
There have also been, of course, unflattering photos of Senator Obama, but none at such a critical moment in the campaign:
So, was the photo fair game for a major news organization to distribute if it shows what was not a representative moment in the debate? That's up to the voters (and perhaps media critics) to decide.
We contacted Reuters to ask them how they made the call to send this (incredibly popular) photo out on the wires. Gary Hershorn of the Reuters photo department and communications rep Alexandra Honeysett replied to my questions by email:
1) Is it real?
Yes, the picture is real. It was taken when U.S. Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) reacted to almost heading the wrong way off the stage after shaking hands with Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) at the conclusion of the final presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, October 15, 2008. In addition to the photo, we have television film of the event that confirms Senator McCain's reaction.
2) How do you decide what pictures to run, and do questions of whether a photo might appear mocking, Photoshopped, or staged (even if it is NOT) play into your decisions?
When deciding which photos to publish from a debate or any event, we look for images that tell a story. Our photographers have snapped thousands of photos of both candidates along the campaign trail, and we keep balanced photo files. Inevitably, people will interpret the photos we publish according to their own beliefs, but our job is to tell, or in this case show, the story as it played out.
3) Do you find yourselves syndicating more content that is snarky, or otherwise bloggable, because people want to see it? In other words, either through push or pull, has the tone of your shooting and syndication changed?
Accurate and fair reporting standards are the pillar on which our Reuters News file stands, and our campaign coverage clearly reflects these principles. We record what we see and we have clear editorial procedures that determine what goes out on our photo wire.
I followed up with the question, "What story does this picture tell?"
And Honeysett answered:
"We leave that up to you to decide. :)
Celebrities have faced the onslaught of "gotcha" photojournalism. But there were times that the press followed a far different standard ... showing barely an unflattering shot of John F. Kennedy, or even shooting in a way that didn't show President Roosevelt used a wheelchair.
The times, they are a-changing. So, do we get a good laugh and move on; or do moments like these catch our attention ... and even change our opinion?