29 May 2010

Visuals of the media

Ever seen a photograph from demonstration against the Israel's military action in the news where angry bearded men are not burning American flags? Me neither, but I’ve taken a few.

Why are the news visuals like they are? Whether photos or video? I have been thinking about these things recently, and I suspect it’s the money. I am sure there are many factors, but the political economy of media – where the money comes from – determines much of the media production practices and through them the texts produced. Visual images, moving and still, are largely a result of the commercialisation of media. Political actors are able to take advantage of the media’s need for content which attracts maximum audiences by allowing them access to shoot visuals, while themselves benefiting from these photo opportunities in, if all goes as planned, by improving their public image. They can be seen to talk to ‘real people’ and ‘to care’, whatever the link between these and their real world actions are. For politicians and the spin industry it is in their interest to get their candidates to create the right kind of emotional response in the audience, whether it is to be ‘statesman like leader’, ‘caring but firm’ or a ‘strong leader to take the nation to war’ for instance. In 2010 UK General Elections the less known leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Nick Clegg was said to have appeared like a ‘leader’ for the first time in the first televised debate and that created a momentum unseen to his party, and perhaps is one of the main reasons why he now is in the government.

The audiences understand images largely through their own context and experiences and therefore one cannot quite guarantee the impact of the visuals, but media producers can use their methods of controlling the images which include framing, priming and agenda setting. Noam Chomsky has written extensively on the power of these methods in controlling the public opinion (e.g. Media Control, Hegemony or Survival), and explored how the politicians together with the less visible but as present spin industry can guide the audiences to the directions that are preferred by them.

The unfortunate outcome of media visuals being influenced by their economics and how to sell them, or how they are used to sell newspapers or attract attention online, is the simplification where media gives public what it perhaps assumes it wants or is able to digest. This creates an inherently unequal power relationship between the dominant media production countries and the less powerful ones, and poverty and famine ends up being highlighted, perhaps to attract people to donate money for charities or to justify government aid, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing (although Dambisa Moyo 2007 argues against it), but the lack of context that is provided can result with vast areas, such as the continent of Africa, to be represented as a one unfortunate monolithic mess in the eyes of the so called westerners (and I say this as someone from such country having witnessed these images for several years), where as the actions of the dominant media production countries are presented in a more subtle way where symbolism plays larger role and the viewer of the images is expected to put in perhaps a little more reading. It can also result with for instance conflict images to be cleaned up for editorial purposes, but those reasons are also relating to political economy as editors are in charge of copies being sold as well.

Traditionally scholars have been more interested in the content that is more straight forward to analyse and images are difficult as they need a lot of interpretation to be understood and these interpretations might not always enjoy consensus amongst the researchers. Traditional text, written or spoken, is perhaps easier to study using quantitative methods and images may have been seen as something to only anchor or support the story, but they haven’t been seen as a very useful in providing context. However, especially since the events of 9/11 in United States the visuals have become crucial driver for the public opinion. Those events – perhaps unbelievable to many – were confirmed by visuals, but the visuals were also a great selling tool for the stories as the viewer of those images were able to attempt to make sense out of them on their own.

Of course, the argument could be made that visuals are part of journalism like any other ones of its aspects, but with the commercialisation of the media it would still be depended on the economics. This characteristic may start already on the production as the photo journalists more often work for news agencies and compete to have their images published (as their income depends on that). This can result with the already short listed images in the editorial stage to be an outcome of individuals shooting images that are specifically suitable to confirm the sale. The visuals in the media which funds itself differently, for instance Public Service Broadcasting media organisations such as BBC, may be determined by less economically orientated set of rules, but for them, what is important is to justify the licence fees, which, in its own way also relates to their political economy very directly.

Note: this piece was originally written for my university as an answer to a question. I have modified it a bit to fit here.

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