British Columbia

Style over substance? Why political campaigns hire personal photographers

SFU professor Lindsay Meredith said that political campaigns hire personal photographs as a means to control their narrative.

SFU professor Lindsay Meredith says as social media booms, so does the need to control the narrative

The B.C. Liberals have hired award-winning photojournalist John Lehmann to document B.C. Premier Christy Clark throughout the 2017 provincial election campaign. (John Lehmann)

When the B.C. Liberals hired celebrated photojournalist John Lehmann to chronicle the 2017 election, the NDP called the move yet another example of "style over substance."

Are they right?

Lindsay Meredith, a professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University, said that while the practice of Canadian politicians hiring personal photographers remains rare because of the high cost, the move doesn't surprise him. 

In the age of social media, both politicians and journalists are constantly competing for the public's attention.

Simon Fraser University marketing professor Lindsay Meredith said politicians are increasingly trying to bypass traditional news outlets by taking their message straight to social media. (John Lehmann)

Meredith said because images carry so much weight on social networks, campaigns know that it's crucial to get the right kinds of photographs out there. 

"When you're a politician, you want to control the news, not somebody else. So you knock out the guys that can take unflattering stuff of you, you get your own guy in there who you know is basically going to behave because he's on the payroll, and that is what you then release into the social media network," he said. 

Political advertising to 'editorial-script'

A debate about journalistic access was triggered this summer when news photographers were barred from photographing behind the scenes of a Tragically Hip concert in Kingston.

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump's reluctance to travel with a traditional press corps has also raised eyebrows and concerns across the border. 

Meredith said the danger of blocking access to journalists is aggravated by the fact traditional news media are experiencing budget cuts.

Meredith said a common campaign technique is to capture political candidates interacting with everyday voters. (John Lehmann)

He explained that as media outlets cut reporter and photographer positions, they become increasingly dependent on material handed out by political campaigns.

"If you can pre-package the product and drop it right into the media's lap, that's probably what's going to get carried," he said.

Meredith explained that while our brains are wired to look critically at messages we perceive as political advertising, when those exact same ideas are presented as a news story or "editorial script," we're much more likely to absorb them. 

"If I straight advertise to you, it bounces off you like a rubber bullet. If I can get the picture and the name at you in what we call 'editorial script,' in other words a news story, the believability, or the veracity, skyrockets," he said.

How to look critically

Meredith said a key to examining information with a critical eye is to be aware of some of the tricks that campaigns often use.

For example, campaigns often try to capture the "human side" of politicians by taking pictures of them interacting with crowds of ordinary voters.

"You want to look like you're one of the gang. You get the right picture with you in there, one of the gang just doing the job, and laughing along with them, and that's where you'll get good traction," he said. 

"Logically, it may not be the case at all, but intuitively, emotionally, that's the name of the game."

The view from the top

Lehmann, a former Globe and Mail photographer who has three Canadian photojournalist of the year awards under his belt, told CBC News he sees his new role with the B.C. Liberals as a purveyor of information. 

"It's really important for the person who is documenting political life and politicians to have that skill set as a photojournalist or documentary photographer, because that's really what your mandate is, to get in there and document what's going on." 

While the government and the premier's office have three publicly-paid video journalists documenting Clark and her colleagues at work, this is the first time the B.C. Liberals will have their own privately-paid photographer. 

With files from Richard Zussman and On The Coast

To listen to the interview, click on the audio labelled Why political parties hire personal photographers