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Chapter 8

BIO342H5 Chapter Notes - Chapter 8: Ablex Publishing, The Vancouver Sun, Canada Day

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The International Journal of Press/Politics
17(2) 214 –233
© The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1940161211433838
1Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada
Corresponding Author:
Alex Marland, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland,
St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada A1B 3X9
Email: amarland@mun.ca
Political Photography,
Journalism, and Framing
in the Digital Age: The
Management of Visual
Media by the Prime Minister
of Canada
Alex Marland1
In the digital age, journalists are becoming more susceptible to the packaged visuals of
politicians that image handlers are pushing electronically in an attempt to circumvent
and influence the mainstream media. These managed photos and videos communicate
officialdom, voyeurism, and pseudo-events, ranging from routine government business
to a personal side of political leaders. They are designed to frame the subject in a
positive light and to promote a strategic image. This article submits that demand for
digital handouts of visuals, or “image bytes,is stimulated by economics and institutional
accommodation, including the constant need for Web content and journalists’ eroding
access to government officials. A profile of the image management of Prime Minister
of Canada Stephen Harper illustrates the jockeying between politicians, PR staff, and
journalists over news selection, pseudo-events, framing and gatekeeping. Insights from
32 interviews with Canadian journalists and Conservative party insiders suggests that
a two-tier media system is emerging between the small news operations that welcome
digital handouts and the mainstream journalists who are opposed. Theoretical themes
for international research include examining the implications of political image bytes
such as the possible priming effect on journalists who are exposed to constant visual
e-communication pushed by political offices.
Research Article

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Marland 215
digital media, image management, photography, framing, media relations, Canada,
Stephen Harper, Flickr
In the digital age, the evolution of political journalism from textual to visual is speed-
ing up, and shortened sound bites are competing with voiceless image bites (Adatto
2008; Esser 2008; Grabe and Bucy 2009; Mayer 2004). Public relations (PR) person-
nel are curtailing access to political leaders while planning, producing, selecting, and
distributing their own favorable photos and video. News organizations are becoming
more susceptible to reproducing the packaged visuals of politicians that image han-
dlers push through e-mail and wire services, and which they upload to institutional,
partisan, and commercial Web sites including Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter. These
managed visuals can reflect serious matters and routine government business, such as
politicians meeting with their counterparts or working in their offices, and can offer a
glimpse of otherwise private moments. A prominent example is the iconic “handout”
photograph1 of President Barack Obama and senior members of his administration in
the White House Situation Room being updated about the raid in Pakistan that led to
the death of Osama bin Laden. That photo was taken by Obama’s personal photogra-
pher; was selected by PR staff to be posted on the White House Web site; was recircu-
lated online, in wire services and in mainstream media; and then was criticized
for having been digitally altered by the White House (Winslow 2011). In addition to
officialdom and voyeurism, these handout visuals depict the fake celebrations that
Boorstin (1992) called pseudo-events: activities designed to achieve media coverage
which are so devoid of substance that their newsworthiness is open to interpretation.
These add to leaders’ fame and greatness by featuring politicians giving a speech,
cutting ribbons and mingling with an adoring public, as well as showing off a talent,
hugging family members and hobnobbing with celebrities. These visuals reappear in
party ephemera such as newsletters—as well as in the news.
As consumers shift to the Web for information the 24/7 nature of news and
restricted access to public officials is creating a constant need for visual content and
a market for free digital photos and video, which we might refer to as “image bytes.”
This article discusses the production and dissemination of digital photos by a political
office. It examines strategic objectives such as framing and image management and
it explores how journalists respond. Evidence from Canada suggests that PR person-
nel are using image bytes to circumvent and influence the media. Moreover, there is
a two-tier media system emerging between the small news operations that use digital
handouts and those organizations that are opposed to doing so. Insights drawn from
interviews with journalists and political party insiders improve our understanding of
the theoretical and practical implications of the digital age on political journalism.
This adds to our knowledge about the relationship between the news media and polit-
ical institutions, the dynamics of political communication, and the interplay between
politics and journalistic practice.

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216 The International Journal of Press/Politics 17(2)
Political Photography and Image Management
Image management techniques have been gravitating to an expanding online sphere.
Whereas in 2000 the Web sites of American presidential candidates were text-based
with some photographs (Shaw 2002; Verser and Wicks 2006), and in 2002 only about
14 percent of U.S. Congress members’ online newsrooms contained photos (Lipinski
and Neddenriep 2004), a casual look on December 30, 2010, at government Web sites
around the world found that digital photos were becoming the norm.2 All G8 member
countries maintained an online library of unmediated photos of their political leaders
for reporters to access. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Web site archived
multiple photos per “working day,” photos of German Chancellor Angela Merkel
were stored in a “Chancellors Week in Pictures” section, and pictures of Japanese
Prime Minister Naoto Kan were housed under the heading “Prime Minister in
Action.” President Obama’s Web site presented a “photo of the day” in a style similar
to that of the French president and the Canadian prime minister which, like the Italian
PM’s site, all maintained a searchable collection of photographs. Other G20 leaders
made photos available online, too. The visuals on Web sites of heads of government
in Argentina, Australia, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and South Korea were compa-
rable to G8 leaders’, though China and Saudi Arabia emphasized various party or
government officials, and the remaining G20 leaders’ sites promoted text of speeches
and CEO-style portraits. The Web sites of non-G20 political leaders such as in the
Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, and Sweden made limited use of daily photos at the
time. Yet despite the preponderance of online political photography, a knowledge gap
persists about the relationship between information gatekeeping and the digital visuals
of politicians (Verser and Wicks 2006: 195).
The “presentation of self,” as Goffman (1959) observed, involves looking at one’s
public image as that of an actor wearing a costume and using props on stage while
being observed by an audience. In politics, managing the public image and reputation
of a party and its leader is often intertwined with selling policy, and it has an important
endgame given that electors’ evaluation of leaders is a key variable in vote choice
(Brown et al. 1988; Davies and Mian 2010). Image management is a component of the
research-inspired “design” of a political product and can be used to counteract image
weaknesses (Lees-Marshment 2001; Paré and Berger 2008) with such methodical
rigor that its techniques are on the margins of state propaganda (Rutherford 2000;
Scammell 1995; Tiffen 1989: 138). Political strategists employ advertising, branding,
direct marketing, media relations, and e-marketing in a permanent campaign for public
support. Less savory tactics include reducing opportunities for scrutiny, the airbrush-
ing of photos, and promoting a negative narrative about an opponent (Adatto 2008;
Boorstin 1992; Mayer 2004; Tiffen 1989). Their work is constrained by the realities of
the leaders character, is frustrated by opponents’ attempts to counterdefine an image,
and shifts into damage control amid public controversy. Collectively, these efforts can
shape how leaders appear in the mass media and can favorably influence public
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