Consider the Photo: Images Influence How We Read Stories

By Travis M. Andrews


How many images do you think you see each day? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand?

A recent MIT study found that the brain can process an image in 13 milliseconds. There are 1,000 milliseconds in a second. With Instagrams banner ads, billboards, website logos, Twitter avatars, etcetera ad nauseum, the numbers stack up.

Similar to that scene from Clockwork Orange when Alex DeLarge’s eyes are pried open while he’s force-fed photos and videos, we’re bombarded with images. With so much information being processed subconsciously, it’s only natural these images alter our perception of the world to some degree. The brain creates connections.

That’s why when, say, Carl’s, Jr. wants to sell hormonal men cheeseburgers, they have a buxom model falling out of her top (if wearing one at all), munching on one. Let’s be frank: no one looks sexy while eating an overstuffed cheeseburger, but the primitive part of the male brain reacts to the images positively, creating pleasurable and positive correlations with the sandwich and thus the brand.

That’s advertising 101. The woman is supposed to make men feel pleasure by tapping into their sex drives. The burger (and Carl’s, Jr.) is supposed to be associated with that pleasure, even if (most) people don’t become aroused by ground beef.

Since this all happens behind the curtain in our brains, our natural impulse is simply to see Carl’s, Jr. and feel happier, and not feel anything when we see say, a Wendy’s.

There are ethical and moral quandaries here, for sure, that make it effective advertising—but that’s a conversation for another time.

What’s more problematic is how we choose images for our news.

In a world where an image accompanies almost every journalism story, the process of choosing those photos is vital. It can color our perception of the story. Sometimes, these images are chosen specifically for that purpose. Sometimes, they’re even altered to achieve that end.

More on this in section III, but take this photo that ran on the cover The Economist following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in my home state, Louisiana. President Barack Obama visited the beach, and the photo displays the distraught leader, head held low. In the background stands an oil platform, reminding us of the spill, and the headline is Obama v BP. The cover is made to create this binary — the President (thus the United States) in battle with its enemy, BP.

In true theatrical fashion, he stands alone:

Photo courtesy The Economist

But that’s not what happened. He’s not staring wistfully at the water or the sand. He’s not contemplating his enemy. His head isn’t held low because he cannot bear the inhumanity of the spill.

Instead, he’s listening to a shorter woman talk about … something. She, and the other man he stands with, have been cropped out of the photo, resulting in an entirely different story. The actual story is serious and the photo reflects this, but it creates a new reality, a false one, which is the opposite of what journalism should accomplish.

U.S. President Obama walks along the Louisiana coastline while touring damage caused by oil spill
Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters/Corbis

(Don’t worry—BP altered its own photos in response to the spill).

It’s vital that journalists, web producers, social media mavens—whomever produces a story—pays close attention to choosing the image. It’s not just a commercial choice but an ethical one. And it’s one the journalism world consistently ignores, perverts, and abuses.



In J-School—the annoying acronym we journalists use to refer to college—some things are Print Journalism 101: The pyramid story structure, the basics of AP Style, how to write a hed (headline), lede (first sentence) and placeholder TK (“to come”), and maybe even why they’re spelled that way.

What is oddly not generally discussed in classrooms across America is how photographs affect the words they accompany. In an increasingly visual world, this interplay is more important than ever.

Journalism has jumped off the page and onto devices made to render every follicle of a politician’s hair in stunning detail, and choosing which photo to use matters. It’s a way to editorialize without editorializing.

As a brief example, before we dive deeper into the issue, let’s use the elephant in the room: presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

The inherent issue with photos is the amount of information they offer that we pick up subconsciously. As the saying goes, “ A picture is worth 1,000 words.” Often, complex ideas are captured (or are not quite captured) in a single image. The following is a prime example. Poverty in parts of Africa is a deeply complex, confusing, and troubling issue, but this Pulitzer Prize-winning photo does one thing—trigger pure empathy.

Photo by Kevin Carter/The New York Times

It’s heartbreaking. It’s a micro-story about a macro issue. This is good photojournalism, capturing the face of a bigger problem and helping humanize that which might seem impossible to penetrate.

But often photos are used to trigger emotional responses as a means of editorializing. It’s an easy way to sneak bias into a story. Let’s take the man of the hour, Donald Trump. Here at Or Something, we used this photo for a piece poking fun at him:

Photo courtesy Mike Licht/Flickr

We did it because he looks goofy as hell. But when The New York Times used a similarly unflattering photo (see below), an ethical line was crossed. Sure, this one is an opinion piece meant to push and agenda, but this example is simply a news piece.

Think what you will of Donald Trump—and it’s not difficult to think a great many negative things—but this is a miscarriage of the fourth estate. What’s worse is that there’s a simple (but flimsy) defense: this is an actual photo of the man, so why not use it?

Of course this employs a logical fallacy similar to “equivocation,” which means deliberately failing to define certain terms (Think: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”) It’s clearly meant to slander.

Not that slandering presidential candidates with unflattering photographs is new by any means. A study in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research found that “An examination of the news images of US presidential candidates suggests that journalists portray candidates in ways consistent with their position in the race. Strong candidates were generally given strong news images and weak candidates were saddled with weak images.”

When Slate uses a photo of former President George W. Bush looking like a clown (below) …

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Or The National Review chooses an unflattering photo of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (below) …

Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

… They’re doing so in a deliberate attempt to discredit the authority of these figures.

This following example from The New York Times highlights how this tool can be used to fulfill preexisting biases. This front page photo was taken at the Selma march on the 50th anniversary of the voting rights marches there, and though President George W. Bush was there, the editors chose to run a more closely cropped photo. Guess who doesn’t appear?

The NYT front page:

The scene in full:

Finally, it doesn’t only happen in politics. Following the Boston Marathon bombing, Rolling Stone ran a photo of one of the bombers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, a place historically reserved for music giants like Bob Dylan, Kanye West and Bruce Springsteen. In the photo, Tsarnaev is attractive, reminiscent of a smoky folk singer.

Rolling Stone Boston Marathon Bombing
Photo courtesy Wenner Media

The choice of photo sparked a debate, as some readers were enraged at the seemingly thoughtless choice. One CNN headline read “Rolling Stone cover of bombing suspect called ‘slap’ to Boston.” Journalist and Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi took to his magazine to defend the photograph.

With the proliferation of the Internet, examples of this sort of behavior are endless. We live in a world where many readers don’t differentiate between news and op-eds, between news sources that have earned their trust and blogs that assume it.

More quickly than we realize, our perceptions form around information we aren’t even aware of absorbing.



The other elephant in the room is the simple fact that these images can easily be altered.

Images have always been mere reflections of what exists, but now they’re almost more a reflection of what some desire the world to be.

Most commonly, this argument arises with regard to women’s (and, recently, Justin Beiber’s) bodies. Make no mistake—this is a psychological travesty that directly affects many people.

But altered images are also used to defend or propagate political agendas (on every side of the aisle). Some examples are famous, such as when TIME darkened O.J. Simpson’s skin on the cover of its magazine, highlighting his race:

Photos courtesy Newsweek and TIME

Some are less known, such as when Reuters freelancer Adnan Hajj added smoke to an image of the aftermath of a 2006 bombing in Beirut, making the scene more dramatic. He was fired immediately, but the intent is clear: creating an emotional reaction in the reader.

Photo by Adnan Hajj

Again, this isn’t new. (Not at all. I’m willing to bet most people don’t know that the image of President Abraham Lincoln that they carry in their heads isn’t real). Nor is it rare. But in a time when sifting through the noise to find truth has never been more arduous, it matters.

Photojournalism can enhance written journalism, and it’s no less susceptible to alteration, bias, or outright lies than stories. But it’s often less detectable. Not many people living in, say, Dayton, Ohio or Birmingham, Alabama or Santa Monica, California would look at that photo of Beirut and pause to consider if it’s Photoshopped or not.

Certainly not in 13 milliseconds.

Travis M. Andrews is a co-founder of Or Something, an editor for Southern Living and a pop culture contributor for Mashable. Follow him on Twitter @travismandrews


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