News Media Shouldn't Have Speculated on Hillary Clinton's Facial Expression

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Hillary Clinton says she was about to cough. Some of the news media speculated on her response. (Credit: "White House," Flickr)

The White House-released “Situation Room” photo has generated a lot of buzz.from its being Photoshopped before being released by the White House to the two Hasidic news outlets that manipulated the photo to remove the two women from the picture.

But, also of ethical concern is the pure speculation by media outlets in reporting on the photo and the reactions of the leaders pictured — particularly that of Hillary Clinton, whose hand covered her mouth in the picture.

Was she reacting in shock? In fear? She says she was probably covering her mouth because she’s had allergies.  But, not before various outlets from the UK Independent to the Washington Post attempted to analyze the image and the determine the cause of Clinton’s gesture.

The Independent, for example, commented that Clinton’s reaction was “horrified” and Obama’s was “no drama.” Critics from The Washington Post went into detail and examined various elements of the photo, from the food and technology present to the postures of those pictured.  Read a sampling of the Post’s analysis.

“Obama has drawn inward, sucked himself into a small place. If this were a stage, you’d never guess the buck stopped there. It is Hillary Clinton who seizes the audience. With the gesture of the hand to the mouth, as if masking a gasp, she is expressive, emotional and human, a Cassandra who stands out amid the lockjawed, impassive ensemble. The photo depicts a pas de deux between the president and his secretary of state, former competitors now moving in sync to take down an off-stage enemy.”

Women’s Wear Daily collected comments from various photography editors and staff at Bloomberg, Business Week, GQ, Time, Newsweek, Wired, and the New York Times to speculate on the significance of the photo’s aesthetics.

However, Clinton explained that she doesn’t know to what she and other leaders were reacting to.  Instead of being “shocked,” as some news outlets speculated, she suggested she was covering her mouth in advance of a cough.  She is quoted as saying:

“Those were 38 of the most intense minutes. I have no idea what any of us were looking at that particular millisecond when the picture was taken… I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs. So it may have no great meaning whatsoever.”

But, even that explanation didn’t appease speculators.  The UK Daily Mail seemed to doubt if Clinton’s explanation was legitimate, reacting to her cough comment:  “Yes Hillary Clinton, that is how most of us look when we cough.”

Why did news outlets jump to speculate on her reaction instead of just asking? StinkyJournalism wonders if journalists would have devoted this much energy to guessing what’s going on behind the scenes if a man had his hand over his face.  Would journalists doubt then a “cough” explanation?

iMediaEthics is writing to the Post, the Independent, and Women’s Wear Daily to ask if they will be correcting or clarifying their reports given Clinton’s explanation for her reaction. We will update with any response.

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News Media Shouldn’t Have Speculated on Hillary Clinton’s Facial Expression

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