Public Editor

When Facebook gives a photo undue prominence

Rep. Stephanie Clayton took to social media to clarify that her photo “gave some readers the impression that I support the bill. I did not vote for the bill in committee this morning — in fact, I expressed misgivings, and I will not support the bill on the Floor.”
Rep. Stephanie Clayton took to social media to clarify that her photo “gave some readers the impression that I support the bill. I did not vote for the bill in committee this morning — in fact, I expressed misgivings, and I will not support the bill on the Floor.”

Electronic delivery enables sources such as The Kansas City Star to disseminate news to an audience that has become truly global. But journalists sometimes have less control over how that information is presented now than in the past — and that can cause problems.

We all know how the World Wide Web revolutionized publishing, pushing newsrooms that operated for decades with once-daily deadlines into something akin to the constant churn of 24-hour cable news. The modern mantra is to publish electronically as soon as stories, graphics and photos are ready, then figure out how to present it in print.

Editors and designers enjoy ultimate control when they put these elements together for the paper or on KansasCity.com. Readers often tell me they appreciate the journalist’s eye in curating the news, presenting what’s important most prominently and rightly relegating secondary elements to lesser positions.

But changing news consumption habits bring editors new challenges that don’t exist in print. An excellent example happened last week.

On March 19, Star Web editors posted an Associated Press report on the Kansas House Federal and State Affairs Committee’s resolution to call on the U.S. Congress to organize a convention of states that would consider amendments to the U.S. Constitution. This would be a significant change to how amendments are passed today.

The story included a paragraph mentioning Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a Republican from Overland Park, saying she “is interested in requiring the federal government to pass balanced budgets but worries that the movement could lose focus.” Clayton was the only official mentioned in the story by name, and the Web version included her photograph in a position near the bottom of the story.

But Facebook changes things. The social media giant is playing an increasingly central role in how news finds eyeballs online these days. Studies show that a growing number of readers see stories that news sources and individuals post as links on their Facebook timelines.

However, the content creators don’t have very much control over presentation inside Facebook’s walls. When The Star or anyone else posted a link to the KansasCity.com story about the amendment, Rep. Clayton’s photograph appeared prominently at the top of the post. This understandably led several commenters to assume she was a sponsor of the measure.

Clayton took to social media to clarify. She wrote that the photo “gave some readers the impression that I support the bill. I did not vote for the bill in committee this morning — in fact, I expressed misgivings, and I will not support the bill on the Floor.”

I was glad to see she took that proactive step. I also noticed editors had removed her photo entirely from the story later that day, avoiding any further confusion.

Journalists have long known that many people don’t read past headlines, and jump to conclusions based on a quick glance at a design layout. When a third party like Facebook gets involved, some problems can be seen only in hindsight.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to publiceditor@kcstar.com.

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