Somewhere, amongst countless Pinterest tiles of the home décor and fashion shots that often fill a paper's style section, may be buried an Obama smile or Romney handshake. That's because a team from the University of Maryland's International Center for Media & the Public Agenda has been pinning more than 8,000 candidate photos since February.
In an effort sprung from questions about the portrayal of Republican primary candidates in the news, project director and University of Maryland journalism and public policy professor Susan Moeller, along with her team of journalism students, began the PrezPix project. In February and March of this year, the research endeavor analyzed more than 3,200 photographs of GOP primary candidates and, in September and October, more than 5,500 of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney as they appeared in news outlets.
The fall election season portion of the study, which looked at photographs of Obama and Romney in eighteen news outlets during the weeks of September 17-23, October 1-7 and October 15-21, revealed that those outlets published a higher number of Romney photos than Obama photos. During the September week, researchers found that the tone of Obama photos was "positive" more often than the tone of Romney photos. Obama was often pictured working diverse crowds, staring boldly forward, or reaching out to hold the hands of supporters, suggesting that outlets were choosing photos that matched the polls. Romney, on the other hand, was pictured smiling less often and rarely appearing with supporters.
But in the October weeks, during which the first two presidential debates were held, the tone of coverage for the two presidential candidates changed. The playing field seemed to grow even as photos from the debate dominated all other photos of the candidates.
After the president's decidedly lackluster debate performance on October 3, the number of "negative" photographs increased somewhat and Obama was more often pictured grimacing or looking down. After the second debate the tone grew more balanced as mirror-image debate photos – photos where the candidates had the same expression or made the same gestures – painted the two candidates in a nearly identical light.
To even find the trends, though, PrezPix researchers needed to do a whole lot of photo gathering. Aggregating such a high quantity of photos can be challenging, so the researchers turned to photo-friendly social media site Pinterest for help. Using a total of 21 news outlets between two portions of the study, including the Washington Post, NPR, the New York Times and Bloomberg, researchers pinned all of the respective sites' candidate pictures on a given day and aggregated them on publication-specific Pinterest boards.
"There's no other way to as easily, as expeditiously and as transparently grab the quantity of photographs that we wanted to in order to get as robust a study as we could," Moeller says.
But it's not just efficiency that motivated her team's use of the tool. "This where the journalist part comes in. We really appreciate what Pinterest does, which is when you pin something and click on the pin, it goes back to the originating source. So, in terms of the value of someone being able to come in after us, be it casual reader or researcher, they can see how each photo was used and where it came from."
Other photo sharing sites like Flickr require additional steps for posting, aggregating and linking photos back to their original source – steps that would have made working with more than 8,000 photos much more difficult, Moeller says.
Although researchers analyzed each photo on its own to determine tone, Pinterest boards allowed them to see all of an outlet's candidate photos at once and shed light on the messages news sites may be sending to viewers.
"When you see photographs as most of us do, you see them one by one..but you're not taking in, in any conscious way, what the messages that are being put out to you are," Moeller says. "Only when you begin to see the photographs in a group, do you begin to understand that there are messages that are coming through, sometimes very powerfully, in the photographs. All of those add up to impressions that act very subliminally on voters."
Not only can users visit the PrezPix Pinterest boards and, at a glance, see trends in photos, but Pinterest's nonlinear approach means a scan of the PrezPix boards can highlight how editorial decisions are made at a given outlet.
And that nonlinear approach may be worth noting as we move to a more tablet and mobile-focused era of news consumption, Moeller says.
"People talk about multimedia, and you go on to a site with robust multimedia environment like the New York Times', for example, but it's all very linear. You scroll down, you click through, you click a button to watch a video. Pinterest is really a tile-based platform more along the lines of what the iPad is moving to," Moeller says. "You're able to see a lot of information at a glance and quickly assess it. So both in terms of presenting photographic information across subjects and beats or whether just creating a really robust photographic environment within a certain news event, I think that's really where Pinterest excels."