Visual bias in image selection of party leaders

Professor Claire Robinson from Massey's College of Creative Arts who specialises in the visual communication of political messages.

A political commentator’s research into the visual coverage of party leaders in New Zealand newspapers during the 2014 election year suggests there was a significant bias in favour of John Key’s image.

 Professor Claire Robinson, who conducted the research, says from New Year through till the election that September, Mr Key’s high level of exposure also had a negative affect on the coverage of many parties, not just the Labour Party.

 Professor Robinson, from Massey’s College of Creative Arts, found that before the election campaign the Prime Minister received 60 per cent of the major leader image coverage, in the official campaign period, after writ day on August 20, this rose to 66 per cent, representing a 32 point difference between Mr Key and his major opponent then Labour leader David Cunliffe.

 Professor Robinson refers to this preference as a “structural bias” rather than a political one, with news values such as the benefits of incumbency and high poll ratings dictating the direction of coverage rather than any suggestion respective newspapers were showing a political preference.

 Ahead of a lecture on Wednesday to present her findings Professor Robinson, who specialises in the visual communication of political messages, says while studies in a number of different countries have found that in a regular news cycle it is normal for the leaders of government parties to receive more media coverage than opposition parties, as elections draw closer coverage should become more balanced as the media start to weigh up alternative government options. This didn’t happen in New Zealand in 2014 in the visual press.

 The release of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics just before the official start of the election campaign focused the press even more on the Prime Minister with his image soaring to 73 per cent of all coverage.

 The focus on Dirty Politics had a negative impact on minor party image coverage, she says. Some had none or only one leader image published over this period. This is an issue, she says, as minor parties rely heavily on press coverage during the campaign for voter attention.

 “A not insubstantial average of 28.8 per cent of New Zealand voters have cast their party vote for a minor party each election since then. However, some minor parties are not getting fair and balanced press image coverage.”

 International research has found that parties with coalition potential tend to be particularly newsworthy and this, she says, was confirmed in her study. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters was the third most published leader and former Conservative Party leader Colin Craig the fourth. But this focus on the “kingmakers” had an adverse effect on the female co-leaders of the Green and Māori Parties who were amongst the least covered.

  “If by the image selections and omissions they make the press effectively support the electoral fortunes of the incumbent and a couple of newsworthy parties we may question the independence of the press from political power, as well as the ability of voters to make well informed and objective voting choices and the ability of political parties and candidates to participate in a genuinely fair contest in which all have the opportunity to be seen and heard.”

 The study examined the coverage of 12 leaders of nine political parties, with images sourced from the daily newspapers in New Zealand’s three largest metropolitan areas (The New Zealand Herald/ Weekend Herald in Auckland, The Dominion Post in Wellington and The Press in Christchurch), a smaller regional paper  -The Southland Times, and two Sunday editions – The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday Star-Times; over 262 days from New Year’s Day to September 19 2014, the day before election day.

 Of the 1441 images published over the year from these papers a total of 872 - or 60.5 per cent - were of Mr Key and Mr Cunliffe. The title of Professor Robinson’s talk “Does anyone know how to Photoshop him strangling a kitten?” comes from a Tom Scott cartoon published in the Dominion Post of Mr Cunliffe lamenting the Prime Minister’s many photo opportunities and wondering how to stop him.

 The Sunday papers were the most balanced, she says, with a 58 per cent bias towards Mr Key. The Southland Times was the least with 72.7 per cent of pictures featuring the Prime Minister.


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