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AP publishes unflattering pic of Romney bending over

romney_fairfield_100812.jpg

This photo of Mitt Romney posing with students of Fairfield Elementary School in Fairfield, Va., was published Monday by the Associated Press. (AP)

It was a news photo that, as Gawker quipped, was "ripe for captioning." 

A pic of Mitt Romney bending over, while a seemingly astonished schoolgirl stands behind him, mouth agape. 

The photograph, posted Monday by The Associated Press for all to see, has since surged across the Internet. The candidate riding a wave of confidence from last week's debate performance was suddenly made, pardon, the butt of jokes.   

So was it a cheap shot? 

Tim Graham, media analysis director at the Media Research Center, said absolutely

"It's unbelievable," he wrote. "It honestly looks like a little girl is gaping at Romney from behind." 

A closer look appears to show the girl looking at something else to the right of Romney. The caption, though, did not initially make clear what it is she's staring at. The caption said: "Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney poses for photographs with students of Fairfield Elementary School, Monday, Oct. 8, 2012, in Fairfield, Va." 

The AP has since tried to clarify. After FoxNews.com published an earlier version of this story questioning the use of the photo, the AP posted an updated caption to "better explain what was happening" -- in that the girl was reacting because Romney was posing for a photo directly in front of her.  

The updated caption read: "Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney poses for photographs with students of Fairfield Elementary School, Monday, Oct. 8, 2012, in Fairfield, Va. A student, right, reacts as she realizes Romney will crouch down directly in front of her and her classmates for the group photo."

Steve Manuel, senior lecturer at Penn State's College of Communications and an award-winning photojournalist, said the AP must have known how the image would be perceived when they published it. 

"In this photo, while it may appear funny, AP knows exactly what viewers are thinking," he wrote in an email. "It's not legitimate news. AP knows that viewers are going to chuckle and imagine what the little girl is seeing, and it makes Gov. Romney appear a bit foolish. That isn't the purpose or mission of photojournalism. ...  Candidate or not, it is not the mission of a news organization to place anyone in a position to be ridiculed or made fun of. Reporting the news is, and this is not newsworthy." 

Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the photo by itself was not too offensive but noted it could be exploited. 

"Looking at the photo, it just strikes me as not particularly offensive. It's more funny," he said. "But in a highly charged political environment like this, you have to be very careful. I don't particularly have a problem with the shot. As long as the caption is fine. My problem is in how people might use it." 

The AP may have entered a bit of a gray area with this one. The photo was not altered or manipulated in any apparent way. But the National Press Photographers Association code of ethics offers some guidance. 

"Treat all subjects with respect and dignity," it says. The code also says: "Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects." 

Graham noted that the image coincided with a story with a decidedly anti-Romney tone. 

The AP piece that ran around the same time was about how Romney had decided to skip a Nickelodeon-sponsored "Kids Pick the President" special that President Obama had agreed to. 

The story was in large part a venue for show producer Linda Ellerbee to sound off on the Republican nominee. 

"That's several million kids who actually want to get involved in the democratic process," Ellerbee told the AP. "They don't deserve to be dissed. But former Gov. Romney also blew off Letterman and Big Bird, so I guess we're in good company." 

Romney's campaign claimed it didn't have time. Also, kids don't actually vote.