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Erik Bucy
Department of Telecommunications

Betsi Grabe
Department of Telecommunications

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University Communications

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University Communications

Last modified: Thursday, February 28, 2008

IU professors find news images play a central role in shaping voter opinion of candidates

Feb. 28, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- News images of political candidates are vastly underappreciated as a source of information and play a central role in shaping voter impressions of presidential candidates, according to a recently published visual analysis of the last four presidential elections by two Indiana University professors.

Erik Bucy

Erik Bucy

IU professors Erik Bucy and Betsi Grabe have published the first study of a major research project analyzing the relatively unexplored territory of visuals in television coverage of candidates and how that might influence public opinion. Between 1992 and 2004, they found, candidates were steadily shown more in individual stories on the evening news, even as their verbal statements, or sound bites, decreased in average length.

Despite the decrease in average sound bite lengths, this increase in "image bite" time means that voters are getting more nonverbal information about candidates on which to evaluate candidates.

"Images, widely regarded as distracting or manipulative, are discounted in research because they seem so intuitively obvious," Bucy said. "The truth is, many voters base their choices on what they see, rather than what they hear.

"Like images of clear weather patterns or incoming storms, candidate depictions on television are reliable forms of voter information," he added.

Betsi Grabe

Betsi Grabe

Bucy and Grabe, both associate professors of telecommunications at IU, examined 62 hours of broadcast network news coverage -- a total of 178 newscasts -- between Labor Day and Election Day over the last four U.S. presidential elections.

Their findings appear in a refereed article titled "Taking Television Seriously: A Sound and Image Bite Analysis of Presidential Campaign Coverage, 1992-2004" in the Journal of Communication. The findings inform a larger research project to be published as a book by Oxford University Press in 2009.

While sound bites are shrinking in size, visual coverage of candidates is increasing.

Specifically, sound bites steadily decreased from 9.19 seconds in 1992 to 7.73 seconds in 2004. During the same period, the total duration of "image bites" -- where candidates are shown but not heard -- increased from 22.9 seconds per election story in 1992 to 25.8 in 2004. The increase in visual airtime has given campaigns and consultants more opportunity to shape candidate images.

"We have known for some time that reporters and correspondents are inserting more of their own opinion and commentary into political coverage and candidates are being verbally confined to an ever-dwindling amount of air time," Bucy said, citing the rise of interpretive journalism. "What we haven't known until now is how much candidates are actually shown."

Since Dwight D. Eisenhower's campaigns in the 1950s, presidential candidates have assigned considerable importance to managing their images. Growing reliance on consultant advice has given image handlers a prominent role in campaigns. Fitting candidates to images that will play well with voters has become as important as articulating policy positions, Grabe and Bucy argue.

Grabe said that when candidates are shown on television news making campaign stops -- even without speaking -- viewers pick up visual cues that gradually shape their opinions of the candidate's character and leadership qualities.

"In presidential races where candidates don't differ much on issues, as in the current Democratic Party primaries, perceptions of candidate character become a key point in voter decision making," she said. "Television is the superior medium for conveying character. It provides us with a fishbowl view of politicians as they blaze the campaign trail. If we see them acting awkwardly or unleader-like, we notice that -- at least as much as we notice verbal blunders.

"In 2004, Kerry and Gore often appeared uncomfortable in the populist mold that their image handlers designed for them and voters noticed it," she added. "Both candidates were -- in essence -- brainy and blue-blooded, but their image handlers advised them to appear plain spoken, jeans-wearing, regular folk in competing with George Bush.

"He, of course, was far more comfortable in the populist mold during both elections," explained Grabe, who also is director of graduate studies in the Department of Telecommunications.

"We are biologically designed to be superb visual processors. Visual displays of either awkwardness or strong leadership qualities do not go unnoticed."

In their forthcoming book, Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections, Grabe and Bucy report that the populist frames projected by Gore and Kerry negatively correlated with their standings in public opinion polls: The more they were seen in populist images, the lower their support dropped among voters.

"A classic example of poor image handling was Democratic consultant Bob Shrum's advice to both Gore and Kerry to embrace a populist frame," Bucy said. "Neither of these well-heeled candidates were very comfortable wearing populism. The frame didn't fit. They would have been much better off projecting a statesman or ideal candidate image."

Applying their research to this year's election, Grabe pointed to the so-called "charisma factor" surrounding Sen. Barack Obama's campaign and said that comparisons to John Kennedy aren't coincidental.

"It is so apparent to me that we're talking about a 'Camelot frame,' which surfaced visually, long before the Kennedy endorsements. His image handlers encouraged his statesman qualities," she said. "Obama stays above the fray, his rallies are designed for visual pomp and ceremony, and he dresses like a statesman. Not too flashy, never casual, always immaculately under-stated."

Grabe asked: "Have you ever seen him publicly in jeans? Make no mistake, he also wears the populism frame but -- interestingly -- in rhetoric only. He verbally expresses concern for regular folks. But visually he shows up as a statesman and that puts Teflon between him and the drizzling questions about his experience to lead."

Researchers have overlooked the role of visuals in political communication because of two faulty assumptions, Bucy said. First, visuals in campaign news are assumed to serve as mere window dressing for journalistic commentary; and second, they believe the information viewers gain from video footage taps an emotional or non-rational aspect of political persuasion.

These are misguided views, Bucy said. "Candidates may be heard less, but they are seen more than ever before -- and that shapes voter decisions. Visual portrayals provide an accurate indication of a candidate's electoral suitability and are politically consequential."

Grabe and Bucy also tested the liberal media bias accusation in their data set and found that Republicans -- not Democrats -- have visually enjoyed the most favorable network news coverage in every one of the last four presidential elections.