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New UMD Study Highlights The Politics of Photos

November 2, 2012

David Ottalini 301-405-4076 -

Major UMD Study Uses Pinterest to Evaluate the Photo Coverage of the 2012 General Election and GOP Primaries

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - In an election all about demographics, the photos of the campaign foretold the ultimate story. PrezPix - a new study from the University of Maryland that evaluated 8,780 photographs published by 21 major American news outlets over four months of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign.

Using photos pinned to the social media outlet Pinterest, PrezPix documented just how broad a base President Obama attracted.   Repeatedly the photos showed Obama talking to and wading among groups of diverse supporters - college students, women, factory workers, Latinos, African Americans - all images that reinforced his position as the president of the "47 percent" and more.

The PrezPix study also documented how positively the media pictured Pres. Obama and his wife. In an election where women, minority and youth voters played the deciding roles, the photos of Obama and his wife specifically addressed all three of those core demographics.  Again and again the photos pinned to Pinterest showed the couple as friends, as intimates, as having fun - all powerfully subliminal messages about the character of the president.

By contrast the photos of Gov. Romney and his wife showed the couple as more formal, more businesslike, more respectful - positive traits, but not adding substantively to what voters saw of just Romney himself.


During the presidential campaign, the 18 news outlets in the fall phase of the PrezPix study published more photos of Romney than of Obama.  In September and October 2012, researchers evaluated a total of 5,546 photographs of Pres. Obama and Gov. Romney during the presidential campaign: 2,933 photographs of Romney and 2613 photographs of Obama.

But more coverage of Romney did not necessarily mean more "positive" coverage:  The 18 news outlets, taken as a whole, published proportionately more "positive" photos of Obama in September, two weeks before the first debate.  Obama was pictured smiling more often, engaged with the public more often, in more diverse settings, with more diverse audiences.

But by October and the weeks of the first two presidential debates, the coverage no longer so dramatically favored Obama - and in most cases the tone of the coverage of the two men was roughly on par. Why the shift?

The presidential debates - and the reactions and spin that followed each one - dominated the visual coverage of the October campaign.  Literally.  News outlets used split-screen photos or pictures of the two men on the debate stage together for more than half the photographic coverage of the debate weeks - and they often appeared to select those photos precisely to give "mirror" (or more equal) portraits of the two men.

See the PrezPix website for more highlights, including findings about the photographic coverage of the spring GOP primaries.


The PrezPix study is believed to be the largest academic research project to date to use the Pinterest platform to aggregate and evaluate news photos. Many news outlets have a presence on Pinterest, but because of its majority female audience, most news media use Pinterest only to post style and living photos. But as Moeller observed, "Increasingly photos are the way that online news consumers access news of all kinds. Everyone is aware that photos have a message, but until now very little has been done to systematically consider what is being said with them."

"Watchdog sites for political ads and campaign contributions exist," she continued, "but until Pinterest, it has been too difficult to evaluate photos, especially in anything approaching real time. What is especially valuable for researchers is the transparency of Pinterest. Pinned photographs link back to their original locations. In our case that means that viewers can evaluate the images we've pinned to see for themselves on one Pinterest board how any given news outlet has pictured a particular candidate. In an era of open data, when the voting public increasing wants and needs information to be online, searchable and mashable, Pinterest is an unmatched research tool."




The PrezPix study was led by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, College Park; researchers included students at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. The research team analyzed the photo coverage of 21 news outlets. For the fall general election three of the original 18 news outlets (the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Dallas Morning News and were dropped, so that three news outlets from swing states and states hosting the presidential debates (the Cleveland Post Dispatch, the Denver Post and the Miami Herald) could be added to the list. The news outlets in both the spring and fall phases of the study were:

ABC News Daily Beast New York Times
Bloomberg Fox News NPR
CBS News Huffington Post Politico
Christian Science Monitor Los Angeles Times USA Today
CNN NBC News Washington Post


ICMPA's PrezPix study is available online at
The Pinterest boards collecting the almost 9,000 images evaluated is at