Researchers at the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland, College Park, set out to consider the photographic coverage of the 2013 Super Bowl game between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers and compare that coverage with the coverage of the NCAA Tournament Championship between the Louisville Cardinals and the Michigan Wolverines. The researchers sought to determine how major U.S. news outlets framed the four teams and two championship games, and whether there had been any significant differences in how these media outlets — as accessed via their online news platforms — visually depicted the teams and the final games in their respective tournaments.

The researchers first compiled a list of top online news outlets, and considered outlets that were natively print, broadcast (TV and radio) and digital.  Researchers considered a lengthly list of possible outlets, in part to ensure that there would be geographic diversity (including states and regions that would host the games) and editorial diversity.   After several “dry runs” of photo pinning to the photo aggregation site Pinterest to evaluate the provisional list of outlets, the list of news outlets covering the Super Bowl was whittled down to 10.  For the NCAA Championship, 6 of the same outlets that were studied for the Super Bowl were used, in addition to 6 additional outlets. The Baltimore Sun, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune were dropped and replaced with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit Free-Press, the Louisville Courier-Journal, Yahoo! Sports, SB Nation, and NBC Sports.

For the final study, researchers checked the news sites for 36 hours following the two games — between February 3 and 4 for the Super Bowl and  April 8 and 9 for the NCAA Championship, pinning every available photo related to the games to Pinterest. To organize the photographs, the researchers created boards on Pinterest for each news outlet and team.  Researchers followed the same process for both matches.

The chart below lists the 16 news outlets surveyed in this SportPix study, and further lists the numbers of photographs found and pinned for each of the teams.  Note that these figures, while representing the number of photographs pinned, do not necessarily tally with the total number of photographs of the various teams on those sites.  As noted below, some photos, videos and GIFs on some sites could not be physically be pinned and were therefore as a consequence not reviewed for this study.

Researchers made no distinctions in their pinning between photos taken by staff members of the news outlets and photographs taken by the wire services — although that distinction was (when known) mentioned on the Pinterest board captions.  With the advent of digital photography, there are so many images taken of every single event, that whether a news outlet relies on its own photographer(s) or on the photo agencies, there are almost always dozens, if not hundreds of photos to select from.  Researchers also pinned photographs that were repeatedly used.  Most outlets recycled photos, using a single image to illustrate different articles (both on the same day and on different days). Every time a photo of a team or athlete  appeared on the site, researchers counted and pinned it again — even when it was a duplicate.

Researchers for this study concluded that editors were exercising their choice of what to publish when they posted one (or even a handful) of photos to illustrate an article or to be a stand-alone image.  Their choices might be based on deadlines needs, budget, perceived news values, aesthetics, or some other determination.  It is this study’s effort to analyze that active choice that makes this study of especial value.

Simultaneously with pinning the photos to the Pinterest boards, the researchers designed a multi-question survey, using the online survey tool SurveyMonkey, aimed at analyzing each of the pinned photos.  That survey also attempted to assess whether those analyzed elements created a overall negative or positive impression of what was pictured.

For each of the 3,274 photos collected, the coders recorded such elements as:

  • When the photo was published.
  • What news outlet published the photo
  • What the main action in the photo was.
  • When during the game the photo was taken.
  • How many people were in focus in the photo.
  • What teams were represented in the photo, if any.
  • How old and what gender was a fan, if fans were the subject.
  • How the photo was taken: in close-up, from a medium angle or from a wide angle.
  • How sexualized the photo is, if a person was depicted.
  • What kind of photo was the shot (photo, screen shot, gif, Instagram, etc.).
  • Where the photo was taken (on the field, on the sidelines, in the bleachers, outside of the stadium, etc.)
  • Who was identified in the photo.
  • How positive, neutral or negative the photo was — the photo’s “tone.”

Following the recording of that data in SurveyMonkey, researchers filtered and compared answers to ask certain questions. Was Colin Kaepernick portrayed positively or negatively? Do winning teams get more attention? Do photographers focus on sexualized photos of the athletes, the fans, cheerleaders or entertainers?

Spreadsheets of the data and screenshots of the charts were ultimately downloaded and informed the analysis of the coverage.