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Jovial John beats po-faced Phil in photo stakes as academic cries foul

John Key's photo featured 138 times and Phil Goff just 80 times during the last election campaign.

Rod Vaughan
Wed, 11 Jul 2018

Oh dear, the academics have their knickers in a knot.

It is all because some newspapers printed more pictures of Prime Minister John Key than then Labour leader Phil Goff during the last election campaign.

You might think that associate professor Claire Robinson of Massey University would have more to worry about.

But no, Dr Robinson, a political marketing expert believed to be earning more than $100,000 a year, has accused the papers of substantially favouring Mr Key during the campaign.

After counting all the images run in the New Zealand Herald, the Dominion Post, the Herald on Sunday and the Sunday Star Times she made a startling discovery.

John Key’s photo featured 138 times while Phil Goff just 80 times.

It is hard to know why Dr Robinson should find this so surprising, given what she said to the Dominion Post last year about why Mr Key appealed to female voters.

She said he represented values women like.

“He’s a doting husband, adores his kids and on top of that he’s a nice guy. He’s not afraid to show emotion and you can read that in his face.”

But it seems Dr Robinson’s crush on the prime minister has been replaced by guilt at Mr Goff’s political demise.

That guilt could be the result of an earlier dalliance with Labour.

According to a blog she made on David Farrar’s website last year, she voted Labour in the 1990 and 1993 general elections.

Anyway, for reasons best known to herself, she examined all 218 images of Messrs Key and Goff which were published in the last month of the campaign.

Dr Robinson does not appear to have drawn any conclusions on the newsworthiness of the photos – a factor which could have saved her the trouble of a lot of measuring.

She measured them for size, noted where they were placed and “scored them for positive, neutral and negative messages depending on whether they were smiling or looking grumpy”.

“And on all of those factors,” she told Radio New Zealand, “John Key came out on top.

“Phil Goff was the one who looked grumpy the most, he had the lowest number of images and the lowest proportion of images on the front page.”

So why was that, the RNZ interviewer wanted to know?

“Goff wasn’t so well regarded and I suspect that perhaps a subconscious sense of support for the prime minister was played out in their choice of images [in terms of] the size, proportion, location and tone.”

Dr Robinson hopes her findings will encourage newspapers “to think again about how they are going to portray leaders, particularly in the election campaign, and put as much focus on measurement of images as they do on words”.

“The point about images is that people go to them first, that’s what attracts people to a story.

“A lot of people only take their messages from images so they are really powerful.”    

Biased coverage

Of course, Phil Goff could not agree more.

In the New Zealand Herald he is quoted as saying that newspapers' biased coverage of last year’s election did not help his result.

“It would have substantially helped to have had favourable coverage and greater coverage, and particularly of photos,” he said.

But there could be more to it than that.

Last year in the Dominion Post, Claire Robinson put his lack of appeal down to timing.

“Phil Goff is exactly the same sort of guy [as John Key]. He’s a family man but I think John Key just got the timing right.

“Phil Goff hasn’t had the chance or the magic to really show his feminine side.”

So there you go Phil, the bottom line is you were just not as sexy as John, and we all know what really sells newspapers.

(Just wait for the "how can this be?" soul-searching on Colin Peacock's Media Watch and Russell Brown's Media 3 – Ed.)

Rod Vaughan
Wed, 11 Jul 2018
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Jovial John beats po-faced Phil in photo stakes as academic cries foul