Six at the table, how many in the room?

Six centrist Senators got some attention from the New York Times today for their role in shaping health care reform. Never mind that the room is small and the “debate” couldn’t be framed more narrowly; Senator Olympia Snowe tells us that Max Baucus, the ringleader, is “very inclusive.”

The story includes an annotated photograph of the negotiations in process:

(click through for detail)
(click through for detail)

It’s an interesting graphic, but it leaves something to be desired: mainly, who are those people in the background? Do staffers have names?

This reminds me of the NPR Dollar Politics experiment, which turned the camera around to get a shot of all of the health care lobbyists in the room during a Congressional hearing, then asked people to send them tips on who each of the lobbyists were.

It would be interesting to apply this technology to news photographs that aren’t taken in a similar spirit — where there are important people in the background, but we aren’t told who they are (and we’re not really meant to ask).

In the future, a tool like ShiftSpace could be used to let audiences create a more vibrant, dynamic, and linked layer of content on top of photographs of this sort, so that the annotation process does not end with the New York Times. Notes from users could help us learn some of the more quiet names and connections influencing the legislative process.

This is why we partnered with the Huffington Post Investigative to dig up dirt on staffers-turned-lobbyists: because many names and connections are left out of the captions and news stories, and we as a community can serve up the scrutiny they deserve. The background can tell us a lot about the foreground, and help to re-frame a story that offered up too many quotes like this, without critical inquiry:

“I think there’s a heavy sense of responsibility among this group,” Mr. Conrad said in an interview. “Our country needs us to get this right.”

The article/graphic also raises another question: are lobbyists allowed in the room? The word “lobbyist” doesn’t even appear in the article, despite the fact that these six Senators, especially Baucus, are very well-connected to health care lobbyists.

Even if the people in the picture aren’t lobbyists now, there’s a decent chance they’ll be looking for jobs in the private sector in the near future, leveraging their experience on this bill to find a cushy lobbying job.

We’ll be tracking them then, too.