Having been delayed by start of the semester preparations, I only just got around to seeing the cover of Newsweek. I had heard about the Bachmann controversy, but hearing about it and seeing the horrible cover in person are two different things.
The intentional use of unflattering images is, of course nothing new. Using such an image is a standard rhetorical device and can be somewhat effective in slanting the audience’s perspective. As with all rhetorical devices, a critical thinker will be on guard against it and (hopefully) see through the rhetoric so as to determine if anything substantive lies behind it. To use this specific example, one way to approach this cover is as follows: “wow, what a horrible picture of Bachmann. Newsweek claims she is the queen of rage, but do they provide any actual evidence for this claim? Also, is that something that should worry me?”
In addition to the critical thinking aspect, there is also the ethical aspect regard such images. Such photos are easy enough to find-after all, no matter how attractive or intelligent a person might be, there is always some angle, lighting or momentary expression that will enable a really awful photo. Of course, better photos are also easy to find and, as most folks know, a professional photographer can make almost anyone look good (or at least okay).
As such, there is typically a choice to be made when it comes to images: a good one, a bad one, and so on. In some cases, a bad image can be justified. Obviously, if that is the only available photo, then it would thus be generally acceptable to use it. It can also be justified in cases when the image is relevant to the story. For example, if someone is arrested a photo of that event, even if the person looks awful, would seem to be acceptable. After all, a photo of someone being arrested seems perfectly appropriate for a story about the person being arrested. However, neither of these apply to the Bachmann photo. First, there are plenty of good photos of her that could have been used. Second, while a picture of her being angry could be relevant, the photo selected does not show rage. It is a bad photo that makes her seem, well, dull and a bit confused. About the only thing that can be said in Newsweek’s favor is at least they did not modify the image to make it appear worse (like what Time did to OJ Simpson).
As sort of a variant on the philosophical principle of charity, news publications should follow a principle of image charity: unless there is an adequate justification for a bad image, then at least a neutral one should be used. As such, Newsweek acted incorrectly in using this image.
Another possibility worth considering is that a bad image is used because the person selecting the image is lacking in aesthetic judgment. That is, they do not realize that they have picked a crappy picture. This does happen. Years ago when I tried my hand at Match.com I noticed that many women would have some very good photos and also some truly horrible photos that made them look awful. While I could be wrong, I infer that they did not realize that the photos were bad-if they did, they would not have used them.
Of course, the folks at Newsweek cannot seriously claim that they are incompetent when it comes to picking photos. Surely they were quite aware of the nature of the image and went with it anyway. The most plausible explanation is that it was intended (as noted above) a rhetorical shot at Bachmann to make her look bad. While this sort of thing is what can be expected in campaign ads, it is not what should be done by a publication that purports to be an objective purveyor of the news or a provider of objective and fair analysis.