Should News Editors consider the impartiality of image bites?

This post, by Dr Stephen  Cushion, was originally published on the BBC Academy website.

In TV bulletins, which remain the most influential source of news, regulators have long been concerned with policing politicians’ sound bites. Indeed, during election campaigns the amount of airtime politicians receive is carefully monitored and political parties even stop-watch coverage to check for balance. However, research has shown the length of political sound bites has steadily shrunk over many decades. Instead, today journalists speak and appear on-screen for longer.

As a result, it is now journalists who are more often put under the spotlight for what they say, how balanced they are, and what angle they pursue. And journalists have become prominent visually too: we’re used to seeing Nick Robinson reporting live from Downing Street. But journalists also regularly talk over shots of politicians, including at campaign events and speeches. These have become known as ‘image bites’ – where politicians appear on-screen but are not necessarily heard.

In the words of Maria Elizabeth Grabe and Erik Page Bucy, the authors who coined the term, ‘image bites’ represent the “increasingly visual and journalist-centred news environment”. These images could become the focus for debates about impartiality in the way that sound bites have been for years. Take, for example, accusations of bias that broadcasters faced in relation to coverage of UKIP and its leader Nigel Farage during this year’s EU election campaign.

A study conducted at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies revealed that, while UKIP did not receive greater time to air their views compared to other parties, the images of different parties and leaders were not as well balanced. In particular, Farage was regularly pictured at a pub with a beer in one hand and cigarette in the other. Image bites of other party leaders, by contrast, did not appear with as striking or distinctive back-drops.


Nigel Farage being made up


On the face of it, picturing Farage enjoying a pint at the pub might appear innocent enough. But should journalists so freely project an image that plays to UKIP’s anti-politics appeal? Consider, for example, the BBC’s own online profile of Farage. Nigel Farage revels in


“…the political outsider who, to adopt an old beer-advertising slogan, “reaches the parts other politicians cannot reach”. Pint or cigarette (sometimes both) in hand, the UK Independence Party leader attacks today’s politicians for being mechanical and overly on-message. Like regulars throughout the nation’s boozers, he states his opinions without much recourse to political correctness.”


Since – by the BBC’s own admission – it is clear campaign strategy to make Farage appear ‘ordinary’ by being seen to sink a beer or two, does constantly reinforcing this image represent an impartial portrayal of UKIP? When Ed Miliband struggled to eat a bacon sandwich it was seen as symptomatic of his inability to connect to ‘ordinary’ people.


But if broadcasters endlessly replayed Ed’s awkward sandwich-eating months on, questions would soon be raised – not least from the Labour Party – about the impartial use of this image bite. Alternatively, when image bites from 2006 of David Cameron hugging huskies in the Arctic periodically resurface, it helps project his green credentials. Since, eight years on, it is debatable whether the party has in fact pursued a clear pro-environmentalist agenda, does the use of the huskie image bite impartially convey Conservative policy?


Margaret Thatcher took a famous walk in an industrial wasteland in Stockton in 1987
Margaret Thatcher took a famous walk in an industrial wasteland in Stockton in 1987


Of course journalists, and indeed voters, have long been aware of opportunistic ‘photo ops’ during election campaigns. Indeed, when Margaret Thatcher held up a calf for the cameras during the 1979 general election, she conceded: “It’s not for me… It’s for the photographers; they’re the most important people on the campaign.”


But while newspapers are editorially free to select whatever image serves their agenda, broadcasters are subject to strict impartiality requirements. Ahead of the 2014 EU election campaign, the commercial media regulator Ofcom ruled that UKIP should be considered a “major party” and asked broadcasters to ensure it was given the same “due weight” as the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.


While the BBC was not required to follow suit, the Cardiff study found its early evening bulletins aired UKIP views to a similar degree as the commercial broadcasters. But given the campaign motivations behind the visual portrayal of parties and leaders – and the possible influence this could have on voter perceptions – should regulators including the BBC Trust begin to ask broadcasters to interpret the impartiality of image bites?


According to BBC guidelines: “News in whatever form must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument. The approach and tone of news stories must always reflect our editorial values, including our commitment to impartiality.” Needless to say, the relative time politicians speak in sound bites is easier to quantify and police than the image bites of party leaders. But beyond questions of stop-watching party political airtime, should broadcasters accept the images spin-doctors try to carefully choreograph?


Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham in hospital
Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham in hospital


Or, on the grounds on impartiality, should they be more selective and seek an alternative back-drop? Questions about image bite neutrality are difficult to define: is picturing Ed Miliband looking concerned at the state of an NHS hospital, for example, more ideologically innocent than images of Nigel Farage drinking a pint at a pub?


Of course, journalists understandably want visually interesting images to help punctuate their edited reports. To stipulate broadcasters must use anodyne images would be counterproductive: turning off viewers would not help political journalists who already fight hard to gain airtime on evening bulletins. But the question remains as to how far broadcasters should editorially review the images they repeatedly convey.


While routinely picturing Farage’s drinking and emphasising his flamboyant character is the image bite of the moment, at what point does it become blatant UKIP propaganda? Political journalists are right to report on the nature of highly stage-managed events such as the so-called campaign ‘walkabout’ that dominated electioneering in 2010.


After all, who can forget Gordon Brown inadvertently calling a Rochdale pensioner a “bigot”? Working hard to avoid similar controversies, spin doctors will be desperately trying to control and influence the images of party leaders in TV bulletins during the next campaign. As the 2015 general election approaches, the debate about how much attention broadcasters or regulators should be paying to the prominence of image bites may be only at the beginning.