“What makes a photo so powerful is that just one
can create an understanding, right or wrong, of a person or event.”

Kevin Blackistone, Panelist at ESPN & Visiting Professor, Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism
at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park.

Louisville guard Russ Smith, taking a shot — USA Today

Louisville guard Russ Smith, taking a shot — USA Today

Beyoncé's Super Bowl halftime performance — ESPN

Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance — ESPN 

Even at times of high drama in sports, when media are covering a championship game, only half of what they photograph and publish is of the game itself, according to a study of the photographic coverage of the 2013 Super Bowl and the NCAA men’s basketball championship.

SportPix, a study from the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda, evaluated 3274 photographs published by 16 major American sports and news outlets as they covered Super Bowl XLVII and the 2013 NCAA final game.  

Researchers found that photographically covering championship games is now about much more than “the game.”

A case in point?  Researchers found that across the Super Bowl coverage, Beyoncé received more attention than any other personality in the game — more than the coaches, the quarterbacks or any other players.


“Today’s media presume that audiences are equally interested in seeing the sidebar events to a big game, as the play action itself.  It’s not enough to see  extraordinary athletes in dramatic confrontations — audiences need to be ‘amused’ in other ways, they need to be entertained.”

Susan Moeller, ICMPA Director, and Professor
at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park.

Scroll down for the top highlights of the study…


Researchers from the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park, used Pinterest to collect the thousands of images in the 36 hours after both games, on February 3-4 and April 8-9, respectively.
Researchers then analyzed the photos to determine how sports news outlets, including ESPN and Sports Illustrated, FoxSports and CBSSports, Yahoo! Sports and SB NationUSA TODAY and NFL.com, San Francisco Chronicle and Baltimore Sun, Louisville Courier-Journal and Detroit Free Press, New Orleans Times-Picayune and Atlanta Journal Constitution, visually portrayed the two events.

HIGHLIGHTS from the study

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A scoring shot — Atlanta Journal-Constitution

  1. The “entertainment” culture of American sports was very much in evidence — especially in the coverage of the Super Bowl.  Across the 16 sports and news outlets considered in the SportPix study, only half of the photo coverage of both games featured “the games.”  Researchers pinned roughly the same percentage of photographs of on-the-field and on-the-court action in the Super Bowl and in the NCAA Championship game, together with shots of players, coaches and scenes on the sidelines.

BUT there were significant differences in what was covered beyond the play action.  See here for analysis of the coverage of the games.

eyonc� performs during Super Bowl 2013 halftimeduring Super Bowl 2013 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Sunday February 3, 2013. (Photo by Ted Jackson, Nola.com |The Times-Picayune) Ted Jackson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Beyoncé performs during halftime —
Ted Jackson, NOLA.com /The Times-Picayune

  1. Across the Super Bowl coverage, Beyoncé received more attention than any other personality — more than the coaches, quarterbacks or players.  Beyonce’s performance attracted immense coverage for an event that only lasted 14 minutes. She was named in captions more than any player from any team.

A second takeaway point:  While entertainment news sites gleefully ran photos of Beyoncé that showed her in unattractive poses from her halftime show, this study noted that sports websites pictured Beyoncé not only in very flattering shots, but in very sexualized ones.  According to researchers, an astounding 96 percent of images featuring the singer depicted her in slightly or very sexualized poses.  Presumably the news outlets ran such photos to attract the same audiences that buy Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit annual, for instance.  See here  for more on the coverage of Beyoncé in the Super Bowl.

ravens positive

The Ravens cheer on the sidelines. – photos.nola.com

  1. Across news outlets, the winners appeared in photographs more than the losers — LOTS more.  Across the board, the sports news outlets published significantly more photos of the winning teams — the Baltimore Ravens and the Louisville Cardinals.  Some of that imbalance was due to extensive post-game coverage, but not all of it.   Sports outlets also ran more photos of plays by the winning teams than by the losing teams and tended to show the winning teams in a more positive light photographically, not just after the game, but during as well.  See here for analysis of the photo coverage of the winners and losers.
Michigan's Trey Burke walks off the court after losing to Louisville. - Michael Clevenger/The Courier-Journal

Michigan’s Trey Burke walks off the court after losing to Louisville. – Michael Clevenger/The Courier-Journal

  1. News outlets pictured the dejection and disappointment of the losing teams and players — EVEN in photos taken during the game.  For both the Super Bowl and the NCAA Basketball Championship, outlets covered the failed plays and post-game disappointments of the losing teams (the 49ers and the Wolverines) much more often than of the winning teams. In fact, researchers never coded a single photo of a Louisville basketball player as expressing negative emotions or frustrations.  See here for more on how news outlets captured the emotions of the games.
  1. The iconic players of the championship games were not the MVPs, but the players who came into the finals with compelling stories.  When Ray Lewis announced his plans to retire at the end of the 2013 postseason and Kevin Ware broke his leg  in the Elite Eight, they became centerpieces of the coverage of the NCAA and NFL final games.
    Kevin Ware was the breakaway star of the 2013 NCAA Championship, cheering his team on in the face of a terrible injury. – Sports Illustrated/David Klutho.

    Kevin Ware was the breakaway star of the 2013 NCAA Championship, cheering his team on in the face of a terrible injury. – Sports Illustrated/David Klutho.

    Ware was depicted as a gutsy athlete, appearing often in on the sidelines and in the postgame celebration coverage. Photos of Lewis hoisting the Lombardi trophy became the iconic image of the Ravens’ win.  See here for more on how news outlets portrayed the iconic players Ray Lewis and Kevin Ware.

  1. Winning team news outlets focused on the game; losing team outlets (or unaligned outlets) emphasized other elements.  Beyonce’s halftime performance was a major selling point of the Super Bowl, but researchers observed that the Baltimore Sun ran just a fraction of the coverage of her performance as the Times-Picayune and the San Francisco Chronicle did. While over one in ten photos published in the Times-Picayune and Chronicle were dedicated to Beyonce’s halftime show, just 3% of the Sun’s pictures featured Beyoncé’s performance. See here for more about the hometown and host newspaper coverage in both championships.
A Baltimore Ravens fan at the Super Bowl — Marcio Sanchez - AP Images

A Baltimore Ravens fan at the Super Bowl — Marcio Sanchez – AP Images

  1. The fans who received the most national media attention were not photogenic twenty-something women, but male and female fans of all ages who dressed — and often acted — crazy.  All the news outlets —not just the teams’ hometown outlets — ran photos of outrageous fans behaving outrageously at both the Super Bowl and the NCAA championship.  See here  for how news outlets covered fans.
  1. Great sports photos are great not just because they show key moments of action, but because they are framed — intentionally or intuitively — via classical metrics.  By using Greek and Renaissance-era formula for beauty — for example, the Golden Ratio and the rule of thirds — to dissect multiple photos from both games, it is evident that there is more to iconic sports photos than meets the eye.
    Mathematical alignments add to the visual appeal of these photos.

    Mathematical alignments add to the visual appeal of these photos.

    Great photos often align with mathematically supported aesthetic guidelines.  The photos’ adherence to compositional rules, may additionally explain their appeal for viewers. See here (football) and here (basketball)  for more on why certain sports photos are especially compelling.

  1. Photos are a key way that online news consumers access sports news —and this study documents that Pinterest is an unmatched platform for aggregating and watchdogging those photos.  Recent eye-tracking studies from Poynter have found that online readers “enter a screen through a dominant element, generally a photograph. Faces in photographs and videos [attract] a lot of attention.” Once seen, photos are subconsciously evaluated.
    .
    Yet the inherently subjective nature of photographs means that photos — especially simple ones — are in essence neatly wrapped packages for sending sophisticated messages about what they picture.  pinterest pixSites that aggregate great sports photos exist, but until Pinterest, it has been too difficult to evaluate those photos, and by extension, the news outlets that publish them. With the advent of Pinterest, coding of images remains time-consuming and rather subjective, but digital tools are making the surveying possible, and the evaluation of the data fast.
    .
    The signal advantage of using Pinterest is transparency. Pinned photographs link back to their original locations and audience members can get to and evaluate the “raw” images for themselves.  In an era of open data, when increasingly researchers and journalists need information to be online, searchable and mashable, Pinterest is a valuable research tool.  Check out the team’s research methodology with the SportsPix project.  And see here for more on Pinterest and here for more on why photos matter.
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