Biased pictures in media

Lisa Wade from Sociological Images posted an article about the pictures of black men used by media are biased.

In recent time there several incidences where unarmed black men had been killed by white men or police officers. The last one occurred just a few days ago. The picture the media presented by the media led to a twitter campaign with the hashtag #IFTHEYGUNNEDMEDOWN. Where people posted two pictures of themselves, one which would lead to a positive impression and one with a negative connotation, asking which one would the media use if they where shot by the police.

Pictures are very important. Not only in modern media. The advantage of pictures is they appear to show reality. Even though, that’s not true. The first example that Lisa uses in her post shows that. The media used a cropped version of a picture. In the cropped version the person looks angry and menacing. The original version shows the whole scene where he shows a plaque in memory of his deceased daughter. No wonder he isn’t happy.

Pictures only show a certain section of reality. If someone is holding a gun on the head of another person while smiling and you take a portrait picture you will think what a nice person, because you don’t see the whole story behind it.

I had a similar impression when I read an article about an execution that went wrong last month. When there are articles about a murderer usually they show a picture where the person looks angry or somewhat weird. As you can see the Spiegel Online used a picture where he looks quite sad and you are just about to feel pity for him. The version they use in the text is cropped. The focus is set to the eyes. There is also the complete portrait picture if you click on the cropped picture.

I don’t know if this is also in general a problem. Reports of murderers sentenced to death are rare because we have no capital punishment in Germany and the German media usually reports only big cases. A quick Google search showed very rare pictures of persons. Most of the German media used a picture of the empty execution chamber. There is also a difference on rights of a suspect. Most of the time pictures of suspects have to be modified so that no one can identify the person.

This is an ethical problem but in a world where you have to be the first one with the most spectacular story and details it is almost impossible to evade such things, unless such pictures are prohibited by law. As consumers of media we should always be aware that reports are not always neutral. So if the message is very emotional in form one should take a step back and think about what it is going on. Well, thinking is always a good idea in any case.

In a quick search I looked up the following three books/articles related to pictures in media.

Fischer, Klaus-Juergen: Den genauen Blick auf die Bilder von Krieg und Gewalt aushalten? Anmerkungen zum eigenen „handgemeinen“ Umgang mit Bildern während des Golfkrieges. 1991. In :Kunst + Unterricht

Haarmann, Elisabeth: Informationen zur Tagung „Frisierte Bilder, getrübter Augenschein – kann man den Fernsehbildern Glauben schenken?“ – Veranstaltung der Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Landesmedienanstalten, Arbeitskreis Jugendschutz und Programm und des Hans-Bredow-Instituts, 7. Juni 1996.

Hemberger, Armin „Wie in einem Feuerofen“. Information, Irreführung und Manipulation durch Bilder – Beispiel Vietnam-Krieg 1972. 2001 Praxis Geschichte.

Kepplinger, Hans M.: Darstellungseffekte. Experimentelle Untersuchungen zur Wirkung
von Pressefotos und Fernsehfilmen. Freiburg: K. Alber, 1987.

Brosius, Hans-Bernd und Susanne Kayser: „Der Einfluß von emotionalen Darstellungen
im Fernsehen auf Informationsaufnahme und Urteilsbildung“. Medienpsychologie 3, 1991,S. 236-253.

Boventer, Hermann: Pressefreiheit ist nicht grenzenlos. Einführung in die Medienethik.
Bonn: Bouvier, 1989.

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