Why Study Photos? •

“Photography in sports brings sports alive —
it makes an exciting event bounce off the page.”

George Soloman, director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism
at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park.

Ravens’ player Jacoby Jones appears to have a glow around him, emphasizing his position as the focus of the image. The vivid colors and the alignment of the players enhance the image’s visual appeal. — CBS Sports

In today’s era of tablets and smart phones, news outlets have come to recognize the draw of a pungent image.   In fact, studies suggest that some readers never “read” the news, they just “look” at the photographs.

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.”  Poynter’s most recent eye-tracking study, released in October 2012, confirmed the paramount importance of the photograph on a page:

Noted eye-tracking expert  Dr. Pegie Stark Adam in an interview with Dr. Mario Garcia: “designers knew the eye always went to the dominant element first, but eye track showed that for almost 100% of the readers in both the first study [in 1991] and the one done in 2007 and now [in 2012] in the tablet study. Having scientific analysis to show that was and is important.”

The basketball rests prominently at the center of the photo, with all the players’ eyes directed toward it. — Yahoo! Sports

Photos are the way that online news consumers access and evaluate the news. Photos are an even “faster” way to assess what is happening than reading a 140-character tweet.

What you “see” in a photo at a glance may not be all that is happening. Larger meanings and trends are revealed when photos are compared.  For example, some key players were featured significantly more than others in photographic coverage of the 2013 Super Bowl and NCAA final game.  Photos of these players are discussed here.

Whether intentionally or not, photos are neatly wrapped packages for sending sophisticated messages about what they picture.  The differences in photographic coverage by various news outlets highlights this point.  As the host city’s newspaper, the New Orleans Times Picayune focused more on the culture surrounding the Super Bowl than the actual game.  Details about coverage by news outlets can be found under the Comparing News Outlets tab.

Action photos collected often show players in compelling angles. — NFL.com

This high-angle shot of Louisville Cardinals guard Russ Smith makes for a more dramatic image. — USA Today

How should a media-literate viewer “read” these images — even excluding the headline and caption, the accompanying article, and such other considerations as the geographical location of the news outlet in which the photo appears?

Researchers can make objective observations about an image.  But the ultimate “effect” of the location, the action, the number of people pictured, and the focus depends on the individual viewer and the cultural context in which the photo is seen.

Compare the two images below of players in the confetti after the game.  Does every analyst of these images evaluate these images in the same way?  No.  But the general perception that the NCAA image on the left has a negative tone and the Super Bowl image on the right has a positive tone—is likely one that all can agree with.  For further analysis of how winners and losers are portrayed, see the page titled Winners & Losers.

Michigan guard Trey Burke walks off the court disappointed—the confetti serving as a divide between him and the Louisville champions. — Curtis Compton

Celebration photos showing confetti are some of the most iconic of the 2013 Super Bowl. — Rob Tringali/ESPN

This study of over 3,274 photos* does not try to answer nuanced questions about individual images.  Coders did evaluate each of the thousands of images collected from the 16 news outlets, but the focus of this study was to identify broad trends.  This website collects and presents those trends and analysis.

This study also intentionally invites its readers to ask their own questions and seek their own answers.  By using the transparent platform of Pinterest to gather all the thousands of photos, researchers give the audience for this study the raw materials to both confirm the conclusions of this study and to draw their own further conclusions.

NB:  Researchers applied the same collection methodology for all the news outlets studied.  It is likely that the researchers on this survey did not collect every photograph published, and, on occasion, certain photographs that could be viewed were not collectible by Pinterest.  The total number of photographs studied, therefore, should be understood to be representative of those published on the news outlets, not an absolute set of all photographs published on all sites.  
It is fair to note, however, that the number of photographs of any individual player or team collected for any given site is a rough indication of the commitment of that site to photographically covering that individual player or team.