With Megan Fromm
Many of the world's major news outlets covered the 2012 London Olympics, one of the most visually engaging events of the year, in surprising -- and surprisingly lackluster -- ways.
A new study of 20 major media outlets used the image-curating website Pinterest to help measure the photographic coverage of four days of the Olympics -- days at the height of the swimming, gymnastics, cycling, diving, basketball, judo, weightlifting and equestrian events.
Researchers at the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change in partnership with the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland evaluated the visual content of each of the sites' London 2012 pages to see which news outlets used photos well -- compelling images, published large enough to see without clicking on them -- and what sports, athletes and moments each outlet chose to highlight.
Researchers found particularly striking that women athletes were pictured in 43 percent of the images pinned to Pinterest -- yet another signal of the gains made by women in these Games which were the first in history in which all the participating countries included a woman athlete. In a similar study four years ago of the Beijing Olympics conducted by the Salzburg Academy, women athletes only appeared in 36 percent of the photos. This year's London 2012 study did find marked differences among the global media in their reporting on women athletes, however. Some outlets devoted significantly more coverage to one gender -- The New York Times showed three times as many images of women as men during the period studied, for example, while The Times of South Africa showed images of men four times as often as those of women.
The greatest surprise of the study?
Only about a third of the news outlets prioritized pictures over text, despite the fact that all but one of the global outlets hosted dedicated web pages to cover London 2012. Researchers were stunned to see how few photos appeared above the scroll on many websites. The best websites included roughly a half a dozen thrill-of-victory or agony-of-defeat photos and posted them in a clear hierarchy of importance, as signaled by size and placement (as did the Daily Mail, Yahoo! and the Sydney Morning Herald).
The best websites?
The most disappointing sites?
The surprisingly weak sites?
Unexpectedly, those sites with the strongest visual coverage (five or more medium to large photos above the scroll) often did not include critical content above the scroll: links to breaking news across sports and a live medal count. The site that came closest to a useful balance of visual and story content was the BBC. The BBC did a good job posting photos, averaging five photos at a time above the scroll, and its page format included a center column giving viewers quick navigation to different sports -- although its update on the medal race was elsewhere.
By contrast, researchers gave The Guardian poor marks for only featuring three photos on average at a time, although it did get the highest marks for including above-the-scroll links to a full range of sports as well as a live medal count. Researchers also rated CNN as ho-hum -- researchers appreciated that its lead photo and three smaller images emphasized the human element of the Games, but the layout included very limited content.
The least visually engaging and user-friendly sites ran only a couple of photos (such as The Telegraph, People's Daily, and The Standard) or featured a very dominant video or slide show with a sprinkling or row of thumbnail or quite small photos. These latter sites often ran photos that were greyed-out until clicked on or until the Flash gallery cycled through (such as NBC, ESPN, The Hindu and Televisa Deportes).
Such websites frustrated researchers by making them scroll down, click-through or patiently wait to see multiple medium-sized photos pass by in a Flash gallery. Visitors must have the time or inclination to sit through a video or automated slide show -- and many don't. Other sites, such as Paris Match which had no dedicated Olympics page, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which posted ads and Twitter feeds as prominently as articles with photos, seemed less than committed to covering the Games well.
A last takeaway?
Every outlet, from the UK to China, South Africa to Mexico, Australia to France, featured the athletes from their own countries, even athletes competing in "minor" sports. In fact, almost two-thirds of all images published were of athletes from the home country of the news outlet. When U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas leaped and tumbled her way to individual gold, for example, hundreds of photographers clicked away to capture her performance. But judging by the online content of this study's news outlets, viewers wouldn't necessarily have seen those pictures unless they surfed to a U.S.-based site.
Make your own assessment of which outlets you think covered the Olympics the best. View the Pinterest boards here.
And check out the sites directly to revisit the photographic coverage.
A Note on Methodology: The Olympix study used the image-curating site Pinterest to investigate the photographic coverage of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The study, conducted live during the Olympics by faculty and students attending the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change in Salzburg, Austria, looked at the coverage of the first four days of the games, from July 30 to August 2. In 2008, the Salzburg Academy conducted an evaluation of the Beijing Olympics, which can be seen here.
Global faculty, from the regions and countries considered, selected the news outlets: they selected each news outlet for its general popularity and its attention to sports. Researchers then used Pinterest and screengrabs of the home pages to capture images from those 20 news outlets in 13 countries and evaluate them using a codebook hosted on SurveyMonkey. (Note that in order to code rapidly changing sites, researchers grabbed screenshots of the London 2012 dedicated pages as well as the photos that appeared on those pages. As a result, the Pinterest "pins" do not link back to the originating visuals and also include some evaluative comments of the coders.) The roughly 75 coders came from five continents and 12 countries and they all were native speakers of the news outlets they coded.
Screen grabs were evaluated for the web content that appeared under the website's banner title, but before a visitor to the site would have to scroll down. (Note that some of the screen grabs posted to Pinterest include information lower down; that content was not coded.) Video embeds that appeared as photos until clicked were treated as still photos, and special slideshows (often in Flash) were considered as one image unless the show advanced through the images automatically. Sites were checked once daily, so the total number of evaluated photos does not account for websites refreshing their images throughout the days of breaking events. In most cases, however, the sites simply replaced photos, rather than updated the format of their pages. Therefore the number of photos on each London 2012 webpage remained relatively constant.
Megan Fromm, PhD, directed the Olympix study, in consultation with professors Susan Moeller, Paul Mihailidis and Jad Melki. The International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA), partnered in the study, conducted at the 6th annual Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change hosted by the Salzburg Global Seminar. Susan Moeller is the director of ICMPA and a co-founder of the Salzburg Academy, now going into its 7th year.
Follow Susan Moeller on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sdmoeller