When Norma Desmond famously declares “I’m ready for my close-up” at the end of Sunset Boulevard, she’s full-on crazy pants and headed for a padded room, which means she’ll probably never know how "those wonderful people out there in the dark" truly see her.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been labeled “crazy” during this election season (it’s attached to Trump more often, while other adjectives plague the former First Lady) but how they are truly seen by the public depends to a large extent on the “close-up” photos shared by the media.
Today we are going to talk about images and how they can be used to manipulate people into viewing a political figure either positively or negatively.
Let’s start with photos our candidates love to share – the ones on their bio pages. For a politician, nothing says “I love this country!” more than having their photo taken in front of the stars and stripes.
Can’t you just hear the fireworks?
The Eagle’s triumphant cry?
The Liberty Bell ring?
There is no formal headshot of Donald Trump in front of flag, probably because he has never held public office. But this one graces his webpage. (I'm telling ya. You can't go wrong with a flag shot!)
For our discussion today, I’m going to use the photos below of Clinton and Trump to demonstrate the idea of “positive.” They are both smiling and professionally dressed. Whether you like the way they look or not, this is the absolute best impression you are going to get for either candidate:
In the Heat of the Moment
But we’ve all seen the other pictures. With cameras that can take as many as 14 frames per second, it’s easy for photojournalists to catch politicians with all kinds of weird expressions on their faces. Which of these photos they choose to SHARE tells you a lot about their overall media philosophy, specifically whether it is positive or negative toward a certain candidate. You’ve seen them on Facebook or Twitter, right? The haughty look, the sneer. The rage, the crazy.
|Bernie Sanders looking angry (Jim Young/Reuters)|
|George W. Bush looking dim-witted (Getty)|
|Obama looking proud (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)|
With Clinton and Trump, the most common negative images look something like this:
|Hillary (Reuters) and the Donald (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)|
Yeah, but if there are positive images of both candidates, and negative images of both candidates, what's the harm? Where's the bias?
Volume is one consideration. While searching Google images for the photos I'm using today, I found it very difficult to find unflattering photos of President Obama. Conversely, it was very difficult to find flattering photos of Trump.
But that's not all bias, right? Obama, no matter how much I disagree with him, is an attractive man who seems to be very photogenic, while Trump just isn't. That's not the media's fault.
True. But I don't think Bill Clinton is either attractive or photogenic, yet I also found it difficult to find an unflattering photo of him.
Of course, I'm not here to argue with you. You can go to Google or Bing and search the images for yourself. Maybe you'll decide Google deals with candidates fairly. Maybe you'll decide otherwise.
But what about true media outlets? Can analysis of photos tell you which news outlets lean to the left and which lean to the right?
I think they can.
TIME for Homework
So here’s your assignment: Take a look at the covers of Time Magazine this year, particularly those featuring a presidential candidate (January 18, February 15, March 14, April 18, July 25, August 1 and August 22). As you study each picture (just the picture – not the headline or the related article), ask yourself this simple question:
Negative or positive?
After you've done that, you can read my analysis of those covers below:
January 18 – Negative/Neutral. Why? Trump is shown from behind, talking to a group of people who look bored. On the other hand, a lot of people are listening to him.
February 15 – Positive. Why? Hillary is shown in front of an American flag. She is smiling and leaning slightly forward, like she's engaged.
March 14 – Negative. Why? The shot is so close up, I can see his pores. Trump is frowning and, even while ignoring the words, I feel negatively about the red check marks across his face.
April 18 – Negative. Why? Ted Cruz is shot from a strange angle, which makes me think of words like odd, off-center, crooked. He is also looking off to one side and smiling, which makes me think of words like sly or shifty.
June 6 – Positive/Neutral. Why? This one is just on the positive side of neutral for me. On the one hand, a shot from behind seems dehumanizing, like the January Trump photo. On the other hand, the low angle can create a sense that Bernie Sanders is “larger than life” or “great.” Also, the halo of light or over-lit background feels promising.
July 25 – Negative. Why? Trump’s hair is iconic but comical, so a close-up shot like this is forcing me to focus on the negative. Also, having him sit in a presidential chair, but facing away from me makes me imagine a future with him as president, but not focused on me or my concerns.
August 1 – Positive/Neutral. Why? Like the June 6 cover of Sanders, this one is a half-step on the positive side of neutral for me. The multiple face affect might leave me with an impression of duplicity, which is negative. But it also focuses mostly on a young Hillary Clinton, and she is smiling and looking pleasant in all the photos, which makes the positive outweigh the negative in my mind.
August 22 – Negative. Why? His face is orange, his hair is yellow, his mouth is open and he's MELTING. How could that be seen as anything but negative?
Now for the Math.
So far this year, Trump has been featured on the cover of TIME four times. If we put the first photo in the neutral category, that means 75 percent of these cover impressions were negative while zero percent were positive. Meanwhile, Clinton has been featured twice. If we count one as positive and one as neutral, that means 50 percent of her cover impressions were positive while zero percent were negative.
If we add in the other candidates and simply label them "liberal" or "conservative," again erring on the side of "neutral" in three cases, we find that 80 percent of the conservative covers were negative while zero percent were positive. Conversely, 33 percent of the liberal covers were positive, while zero percent were negative.
You're probably thinking those are pretty small sample sizes, right? Yep. That's what I was thinking too. So I went back to TIME covers from 2010 to the present and analyzed those featuring political figures in the U.S. My findings were oddly symmetrical. Liberals graced the covers 15 times, while conservatives were featured 14 times. I found that 10 out of 15 liberal images were positive. Only one was negative. The rest I deemed neutral. Conversely, I found that 10 of the 14 conservative images were negative. Only one was positive. The rest were neutral.
My conclusion? If their covers are any indication, TIME magazine leans significantly to the left. If or when I read it, I will keep that in mind.
You might reach different conclusions than I did. That's fine. I encourage you to try it for yourself with any newspaper, magazine or website of your choosing. Scroll through the photos. Decide which are negative and which are positive. Find out if there's a trend. You might be surprised at what you learn.
Next week I'm going to talk more about how we perceive different news outlets -- how liberal they are or how conservative. Let's find out if our perception matches reality!