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The Story the Campaign Pictures Tell

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Barack Obama may be only eight points ahead of John McCain in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, but he's creaming McCain in the number of pictures and stories published in The Post in the past two months.

First, photos. Richard Benedetto, a retired USA Today White House reporter who teaches journalism and political science at American University, studied photos in the A section from June 4, the day after Obama clinched the nomination, to July 14. He shared his research with me, and I expanded it to the whole paper and continued it through Friday with the aid of my assistant, Jean Hwang, photo desk assistant David Snyder and The Post's Merlin photo database.

What we found: 122 photos of Obama have been published in the paper during that time to 78 for McCain, counting tiny to big. Most of those photos ran inside the paper; most on the politics page. The Page 1 photos are closer: Obama had nine to McCain's seven. Five of Obama's were above the fold; McCain had four. Obama also got more color photos, 72 to 49, and more large photos -- mostly those that spanned three or more columns, 30 to 10.

McCain was behind before Obama went to the Middle East and Europe. But during his trip, Obama shellacked McCain on photos. July 25 was the topper -- five photos from Obama's Berlin visit. To begin with, a photo of Obama before a humongous crowd dominated Page 1 -- a stunning photo worth the size. Next, on Page A6, another big Obama picture. Next, a large picture of him at the Victory Column on the op-ed page with a Eugene Robinson column. But wait, there was yet another picture of him by the Victory Column on the Style section front and another picture inside Style of Obama talking to reporters. It was a bit much.

The pictures of Obama -- in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Israel, in Berlin and in Paris -- did just what the campaign wanted: They portrayed Obama as a world leader. The Post also covered McCain's trip to Latin America in early July, but McCain didn't draw the crowds Obama did, and the Middle East is much more of a newsworthy hot spot than Latin America.

Part of Obama's visual success in The Post is due to three factors, like them or not -- Obama as phenomenon; that he's photogenic; and good photo opportunities. But none of that gets The Post off the hook for the McCain photo gap. There is no Post policy that the paper must run pictures of equal size and color and quality. But there is the rule that everyone knows: Be fair.

Factor one: Obama is the first African American slated to win a major party's nomination; McCain has been around a long time and ran for president before.

Michel du Cille, The Post's assistant managing editor for photography, has edited pictures for six presidential campaigns at The Post. He doesn't believe that photos for McCain and Obama have to be equivalent. Rather, he believes in making sure that the best pictures get used while being fair to both candidates.

To look at the phenom factor, du Cille went to the Merlin database to see how many pictures have been run of Obama since he first appeared in Post pages in 2003. That would be 1,109. McCain's pictures go back to the early days of the database, 1995, with 1,032 published. Obama is still ahead.

Factors two and three: Obama and his backgrounds are simply more photogenic. And my guess is that he smiles more, and that makes a better photo. This is not a partisan statement. Remember Ronald Reagan? Like Reagan's staff, Obama's campaign has a genius for putting him in places that make good photo ops.

McCain's got a great smile, too, but his photos usually show him looking serious. I looked through days of photos to confirm that. McCain also is often wearing a baseball cap outside to protect his skin from another melanoma, and it shades his face.

Benedetto also thought that the photos of Obama were "more candid, personal, artistic, and flattering. . . . There were few artistic photos of McCain. Most were traditional campaign shots. . . . One exception was a shot of McCain speaking with the yellow glow of an ornate chandelier in the background."

The vast majority of these photos were not taken by Post photographers but by wire service shooters. Most Post photos of the candidates were taken in Washington. But all the photos are selected, sized and put on the pages by Post editors.

Ed Thiede, assistant managing editor for the news desk, said that the numbers are "eye-opening. We should be more cognizant." Du Cille and Thiede were both surprised at the numbers. Du Cille said, "The disparity in the numbers is indeed hard to reconcile. As photojournalists, we always strive to be fair. We have tried to be balanced, but it seems that in a large operation such as ours, we need to monitor the use of political images even more closely."

Thiede said that the difference "reflects that Obama is new to the scene and has had more events that had more visual impact. Obama's campaign is better at putting him in situations that mean better photos," and too many of McCain's photos were static and at a podium.

Readers look at photos when they don't read stories. But Obama leads in stories since June 4, too -- 139 to 94. They were both featured in 23 stories. Again, part of this is due to Obama being the new kid and less well known.

But these kinds of discrepancies feed distrust on the part of readers, especially conservative ones, who already complain that The Post is all for Obama. Next week, I will examine the stories.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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