The Associated Press issued a mea culpa Wednesday over a photo that showed Mitt Romney bending over while a seemingly astonished schoolgirl gawked at him from behind.
The image, which was initially published Monday with a caption that simply said Romney was posing for photos with elementary school students, became instant Internet fodder.
As Gawker quipped, it was "ripe for captioning." But some complained that it was blatantly unfair to Romney.
AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said Wednesday the company "fell short" of its own standards in this case.
Carroll said in a statement that the original caption was "too generic and missed the boat by not explaining exactly what was happening."
The AP published an updated caption on Tuesday which 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. A student, right, reacts as she realizes Romney will crouch down directly in front of her and her classmates for the group photo."
But Carroll suggested it was too late.
"We amended the caption on Tuesday with that explanation, but by then many people had seen the photo and were confused by or angry about it. Those generic captions help us process a large number of photos on a busy campaign day, but some photos demand more explanation and we fell short of our own standards by not providing it in this case," she said.
Several media analysts had taken issue with the image, since it appeared to show Romney in an unflattering light and exposed him to ridicule almost immediately.
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."