Making Sense of the Media
4:40 pm
Wed November 14, 2012

Are the Media Being Fair to Jill Kelley?

Gen. David Petraeus, left, Scott and Jill Kelley and Holly Petraeus watch the 2010 Gasparilla parade from the Kelleys’ front lawn.
Credit Amy Scherzer / Tampa Bay Times
Listen to Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride discuss how the media is covering Jill Kelley and the Petraeus scandal.

Most of us have seen it – the photo of Tampa socialite Jill Kelley and former CIA Director David Petraeus on the Kelley’s South Tampa lawn.

She’s wearing a low-cut, high-hemmed black dress and party beads (it was taken during Gasparilla, Tampa’s version of Mardi Gras.)

It’s become the iconic photo of the scandal. But is it a fair portrayal of Kelley?

That’s the question on the mind of Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute’s Sense-making Project.

“Those of us who live in the Tampa Bay area recognize that as a Gasparilla photo,” McBride said. “She’s got the beads on. It comes to us in a certain context.

“But the rest of the world sees something very different. They see a stunning woman in a low-cut short dress with beads on,” she said.

“It’s unfortunate. A photo really conveys a very narrow story about an individual. Yet that narrow story is the iconic image of Jill Kelley these days,” she said.

It’s similar to the debates over photos in the Treyvon Martin case. At first, many news organizations used the two photos available to them: a youthful-looking, smiling Martin, and the frowning mugshot of Zimmerman from a previous arrest.

Only later did they add other photos – a more recent photo of a smiling Zimmerman, and a photo of an older Martin in a hoodie.

“This photo of Jill Kelley conveys so much more,” she said, "especially when news outlets use the full image."

The original Tampa Bay Times edit cropped the dress above the hemline and in tight, but most are using the broader crop.

“That leads to a lot of conclusions that may or may not be accurate,” McBride said.

The Tampa Bay Times had the photo at all because it is one of a shrinking number of papers with a society reporter, Amy Scherzer.

McBride says the Petraeus scandal shows the value of having a society reporter. She says Scherzer heard about Kelley’s role and then alerted her supervisors to the photos – and provided important context and reporting.

“This story has all the trappings of a significant national security story and a soap opera,” McBride said. “And I think that’s what’s driving the narrative, because you cannot untangle those two threads.”