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Posted by on Sep 16, 2013 in Featured, Media | 15 comments

The Miss America contest, origin myths and visual triggers

Official photo Nina DavuluriOfficial photo Nina DavuluriA 24-year old New York woman won the Miss America contest Sunday night, giving the Empire State back-to-back victories. Nina Davuluri, who wants to become a physician like her father, is an American. But her exotic appearance reflects her heritage, which is Indian. As in India.

And it was her appearance — her brown skin, as it were — that was immediately called out in social media channels.

Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, was the darling for many conservatives. The blonde is a sergeant in the U.S. Army, hunts deer and supports the NRA.

I’m not sure which is worse: this tweet from FOX Radio personality Todd Starnes or the number of retweets:

Todd Starnes Tweet

Never mind that the first Europeans to settle in the Americas were Spanish. Before the Mayflower (not blonde-haired folks either).

Or that there is no such thing as “American values” that everyone in the country has ever agreed upon.

Then there was the stereotypes:

I was alerted to the misplaced angst over her win via this tweet and screen capture:

A not-so-subtle reminder that unless you are Native American, your family of origin came here as an immigrant. (Heck, Native Americans may have come from elsewhere as well.)

Our demographics continue to change. Less than half of the babies born in 2012 were Caucasian. Demographers project that in 30 years, Caucasians will be a minority.

As I checked out the news coverage, I thought I detected a wide variance in skin tone in her pictures. One image, in particular, seemed to be an outlier. So I began comparing, pulling a light and dark sample from each image.

I was unhappy to learn that my first impressions were correct.

Skin tone comparison Miss America

Of the 10 photos that I analyzed, one is clearly darker than the norm and two appear to have been modified by the publisher.

The photo that shows her with the darkest skin is an aberration in this sample. Taken by Mel Evans and distributed by AP, here is an example from USA Today:

Miss America

In addition, one AP photo appears drastically different on the FOX Alabama web site when compared with the New Indian Express. Same photographer, same photo.

Mel Evans, AP



Another photo taken earlier in the competition by Donald Kravitz, a Getty Images photographer, show Davuluris wearing a green dress. The darker image ran on the NY Daily News website; the lighter image ran on E!. Given that the photo distributed by AP is the same in both publications, it seems as though the difference lies there. Might E! have touched up the photo because it’s an entertainment site? Might the NY Daily News have darkened the photo?

David Kravitz, Getty



This kind of manipulation would be bad form any time. But given the state of US-Middle Eastern relations today, enhancing a brown person’s skin tone is like tossing raw meat to a bunch of hyenas.

If these modifications were deliberate, then they appear to be a violation of journalistic ethics, at least as outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Press Photographers Association.

And that would make them worse than the slurs on Twitter and Facebook, because (a) news media set public opinion, (b) images pack an emotional punch and (3) mass media reach far more people, domestically and abroad, than individuals on social networks. Technology has driven the cost of production way down but it’s still expensive (time, energy, advertising) to get attention.

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