By Richard Benedetto
WASHINGTON – John McCain backers who believe he is not getting a fair shake in coverage from the Washington Post might have a case, especially when looking at photos.
An examination of the A Sections of The Post from June 4, the day after Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, to July 13, a time frame of 40 days, showed that the newspaper not only published more photos of Obama, but that photos of him were generally larger, more colorful, more flattering and better placed than those of McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.
Consider these A-Section findings over the period:
– Obama photos outnumbered McCain, 57-47.
– Obama had more front-page photos, 6-5.
– Obama had more color photos, 38-27.
– Obama had more large photos, three columns or wider, 31-19.
While numbers of published photos on the front page were nearly equal, those of Obama were substantially larger than pictures of McCain. Moreover, five of the six Obama pictures on the front page were above the fold. Three of the five McCain photos were played below the fold, a less conspicuous spot.
My examination further left me wondering whether photographers devoted more effort and time to composition of Obama photo shoots, rather than simply opting for a head and shoulders image. Obama photos seemed more candid, personal, asrtistic, and flattering.
For example, on June 22., a dramatic nearly quarter-page color photo of Obama on Page 4A had a background of what appeared to be heavenly stars reminiscent of the American Flag. On the same page, below the fold, was a tight one-column mugshot of McCain, about one-twentieth the size of the Obama portrait.
On June 5 (Page A7) , the newspaper published a full-page-width photo of a heroic-appearing Obama speaking from the back of a truck in Iowa. Post photographer Linda Davidson had to have been on her knees or stomach to capture that angle.
And on July 5 (Page A-4), there was a four-column photo of the full Obama family – Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha- waving flags and smiling broadly during at a Fourth of July parade in Montana. No picture of McCain in The Post that day.
Also, on June 14, the day after NBC’s Tim Russert died, the Post managed to find and publish a file photo of Russert interviewing Obama on Meet The Press. McCain appeared on Russert’s program several times, but the Post featured no photo to show that.
There were few artistic photos of McCain during the 40 days. Most were traditional campaign shots of the Arizona senator candidate speaking at a lectern or shaking hands with supporters. One exception was a shot of him speaking with the yellow glow of an ornate chandelier in the background. Another showed him talking to reporters on his plane.
In most of the Obama pictures the candidate is smiling. In most of the McCain photos his expression ranges from serious to sour. One might argue that Obama just smiles more than McCain. That’s probably true. But the contrast is noticeable.
Is all this an accident, or an effort by The Post to boost Obama, consciously or unconsciously? The discrepancies raise questions.
Some might label my 40-day comparison as coincidence, and that if we look at the photos over a longer period they would tend to balance. Maybe so. It would be interesting to check the figures at the end of the summer.
There is no rule nor regulation that says a newspaper must devote equal space in news columns and equal numbers and quality of photos to presidential candidates. Ralph Nader is running and barely receives coverage. But the principle of fairness, pertaining to photos, should apply to the top candidates,
Take note that this is not to accuse Washington Post photo editors of a bias toward Obama. But I am saying that editors need to be more discerning in their picture selections and ask themselves if they are giving the two candidates an even break. Right now, they are not.
Richard Benedetto is a retired White House correspondent and columnist for USA Today. He now teaches politics and journalism at American and Georgetown Universities in Washington, D.C.